Sunday, February 08, 2009

Maintaining Identity, Advancing a Region . . .

[This article was originally published in the January, 2009 "Utica Phoenix":]

To the editor:

I've blogged many times about the disappearance of the "Utica" name from various organizations, how its replacement by "Mohawk Valley" is often inaccurate and confusing, and how it ultimately hurts the marketing of our entire region. Simply put, "Utica" is easily found on a map, but "Mohawk Valley" means anywhere from north of Rome to Albany. The Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce ("MV Chamber") has been a focus of criticism because it changed its name from the "Utica Area" Chamber a few years ago. How could a group, founded to promote "Utica Area" commerce, choose a name that hides its location?

You recently forwarded to me an e-mail from Mr. Elias, President of the MV Chamber, which indicated willingness to consider revival of the "Utica" brand. Mr. Elias stated "I am supportive of 'The Greater Utica Area Chamber of Commerce'.....but this will ...and has taken time" (ellipses in original). He went on to propose that his organization and the Rome Chamber take the lead of the Oneida County Convention and Visitors Bureau to effectively promote the area, and stated that "This would also force consolidation of other chambers of commerce.... and ultimately force a chamber of commerce structure throughout Oneida County that would better promote our region.....the myopic thinking I am encountering is frustrating!" He also stated that "we have only two true chambers in this region...Rome and Utica!"

Mr. Elias' words gave me something to ponder.

Changing the "MV" Chamber to "Greater Utica" Chamber should be an easy name change. If restoring "Utica" to the MV Chamber's name is going to take time like Mr. Elias says, then it is important to disclose why. Who would resist such a change?

The MV Chamber's website, however, suggests that it is NOT promoting Greater Utica, but, instead, aspiring to be a "regional" chamber. Four pictures flip on its homepage: the Stanley Stage, the Boilermaker, Ft. Stanwix, and Herkimer Diamond Mines. The first two are not identified as being in Utica, and the latter two are not in Greater Utica but are in areas having their own chambers. There is a lot more to showcase in Utica than the Boilermaker and the Stanley: the Utica Symphony, M.V. Ballet, O.C. Historical Society, the Utica Zoo, M-W-P Arts Institute, Children's Museum, and the Brewery. There are interesting places such as Varick Street, Bank Place, Bleecker Street and "Uptown." There is rich history, interesting architecture and one of the most extensive municipal park systems in the state. You can bike on the Canalway Trail, ski and sled at Val Bialis, golf and cross-country ski at Valley View, hike and birdwatch at Utica Marsh, and play tennis for free at several locations. Utica has one of the most diverse populations in the country, and, undoubtedly, some of the best restaurants and pastry shops this side of New York City. All these things are worthy of promotion by our chamber but are not. Greater Utica's assets are lost in the chamber's "regional" static. Is it any wonder why outside businesses such as Standard Chartered Bank do not give Utica a second look? Or why other communities in the region do not want to join the "Mohawk Valley" Chamber? If Utica is treated so poorly, what fate would Boonville or Camden suffer? It is not "myopia," but survival.

While effective "regional" promotion is important, Mr. Elias' goal will continue to be frustrated by a "Top Down" approach that disregards the needs closest to the ground. Unlike other places that may have "regional" chambers, our region contains several distinct areas of commerce, the largest being Greater Utica, Rome, and southern Herkimer County. They draw clientèle from primarily their respective zones rather than each other. Besides being geographically distinct, they are served by separate newspapers and somewhat separate broadcast media. Looking at where their customers reside, businesses might expect their needs to be better served by a local chamber that is familiar with their marketing area over one styling itself as blanketing all three places and more. The MV Chamber, by placing itself in direct competition with the local chambers, would be regarded as an unneeded interloper, and, worse, a threat.

Regional needs would be better met by a "Bottom Up" approach which guarantees that local needs will not be overlooked. In this vein, most of the local chambers have already grouped themselves under the "Chamber Alliance of the Mohawk Valley" (the "Alliance"). While the effectiveness of this group may be debated, it does provide a vehicle for regional promotion, while allowing localized needs to be met by the local chambers. Curiously, the MV Chamber no longer participates with the Alliance. This deprives the Alliance of the strength of the region's largest market. It also deprives the MV Chamber of supportive friends, and the region of effective marketing.

From my arm-chair vantage point, I see organizations competing when they could be cooperating. Here's what needs to happen if the region is to progress.

First, the MV Chamber, the chamber that serves the region's largest city, needs to use that city's name in its own name. That will put itself on the map.

Second, the MV Chamber needs to abandon its "regional" aspirations and focus on its core business: Utica and its suburbs. Too many good things in Greater Utica have not been promoted.

Third, the MV Chamber needs to promote "Greater Utica" as the identity for all of Utica and its suburbs. That includes New Hartford. While some in New Hartford are proud of their recent development, that would not have happened if Utica were not next door. Utica and New Hartford, Whitestown and the other suburbs, are all interdependent, sharing the same marketplace, customer base and more. If the chamber can get the region's largest economic entity (Greater Utica) behaving as one instead of as rival Balkan states, then there will be hope for moving the entire region forward.

Fourth, a renewed "Greater Utica" Chamber needs to do some serious fence mending with its neighbors in Rome, Herkimer County and elsewhere, respecting the others' boundaries while acknowledging their contributions. This may be difficult because the MV Chamber had positioned itself as a competitor organization, but for the region's sake, it must be done. (The Rome Chamber could serve as a model. It's website promotes Rome first, but shows how life in Rome is enhanced with Utica and other Mohawk Valley communities near by.)

Fifth, a "Greater Utica" Chamber needs to rejoin the Alliance, contributing its strength, but as one among equals . . . And the Alliance needs to accept this new member if it has any desire to move a regional agenda forward.

[Be sure to pick up the February, 2009 "Utica Phoenix" to read "The Pipes, The Pipes Are Calling . . . "]

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