Ann Arbor Chamber merger with Ypsilanti group creates regional collaboration model
Among the changes from the national economic crisis in 2009 was a movement by many nonprofits to examine new strategies amid mounting concerns about sustaining revenue.
The business advocacy groups for Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti were no exception: Both groups recognized that their constituents - in particular the small business owner - were significantly affected by the slowdown that followed the financial collapse.
In Ann Arbor, that was seen as the interim president announced that part of the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce’s new offices on West Huron at South Main would be available for sublease.
It also saw a decline in membership and suffered three straight years of revenue losses, part of which is attributed to the group voluntarily reimbursing buyers of Ann Arbor Gold gift certificates after the company running the program went out of business.
The Ypsilanti Area Chamber of Commerce also was watching revenue closely and saw some member declines.
As the Ann Arbor chamber looked for a new president to run the operation, leaders met with Ypsilanti chamber leaders to discuss potential collaboration.
That effort to boost collaboration took a giant leap last fall, as leaders of both groups realized they had the ability, the will and the right timing to initiate a merger.
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
The merger - unprecedented in Washtenaw County and likely to be a model for other groups in the future - earned the 2010 Deals of the Year award for a nonprofit.
"Going forward, we need to be able to support business regionally," Ann Arbor Chamber chairman Karl Couyoumjian said after a January breakfast meeting to celebrate the merger. "This was a great way to do it."
He continued: "We're very excited about this.
"It's exciting ... for both chambers to move toward regionalism and move away from any kind of dividing line. That's the goal of this."
It’s that dividing line - and the erasure of it - that makes this move notable beyond the group’s combined membership, which now totals about 1,400.
Washtenaw County grew up as a patchwork of smaller entities. That includes both city and township governments; school districts; and social and service organizations that served a particular area.
But as the county grew, and many of the purposes and services of those groups overlapped, the strict geographic boundaries often stayed rigid.
Many in Washtenaw County have said that it’s time to end duplication of efforts and find more common ground. But making that happen has proven difficult.
When the chambers announced their merger, they set an example for other groups exploring - or ignoring - the opportunities to erase invisible boundaries that many people just don’t see anymore.
It’s not necessarily easy. But the chambers’ move showed strength in many areas. That includes making the announcement even though all details weren’t worked out, because leaders had faith they were moving in the right direction.
The chambers also culled their own leadership, taking on a merger knowing that all on the respective boards of directors wouldn’t be needed after the merger.
And they chose a new name: A2Y Chamber, reflecting a true merger instead of an absorption of one group into the other.
They also preserved continuity by hiring Diane Keller from the Ypsilanti Chamber to run the combined group.
Reaction to the move was uniformly positive, further showing the community the possibilities from this level of cooperation and creative problem-solving.
“It’s going to be a learning process,” vice chair John Petz said in January. “I won’t be surprised if we stumble in a few spots. But in the end, members will benefit.”