Navigating through the unknownDec 31, 2020 12:40PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
When Gov. Larry Hogan declared a coronavirus state of emergency on March 5, the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce quickly pivoted to help members. The months-long emergency and all its permutations was a baptism by fire for Debbie Brown, promoted to executive director on March 23.
The chamber’s most important move was pointing members to all sorts of places to get all sorts of financial assistance, she said, and its next-most important was offering virtual programs so that members “still felt part of society.”
“The chamber kept up a very relevant presence as we tried to navigate through a complete unknown,” said Josh Huegel, vice president of finance of AUI Power in North East. “We got essential information on a frequent and timely basis. They connected with the state. They connected with the county. They became the source to find information and to get to the right people.”
The chamber also became the source to connect with other businesses in Cecil County. Huegel, also a member of the chamber’s board, said that he had earlier been too busy to have time for in-person networking, but the chamber’s new meetings on Zoom were doable and productive. And on these virtual sessions, “the chamber was like a beacon of light, radiating a smile and positivity.”
John Gonzalez, manager of the Landmark Science & Engineering branch in Havre de Grace, agreed on both points. “The chamber came up with a virtual networking program that was innovative,” he said. “And they provided updates to the [Maryland Strong:] Roadmap to Recovery efforts and loans.”
In a way, the work foreshadows the chamber’s 2020-21 theme, “Community is our goal.”
Money matters foremost
The chamber functioned as a clearinghouse on measures to cope with the emergency. “There was so much information from so many different resources, on the county, state and national level on funding and grants,” Brown said. “We filtered it back to the community on a daily basis, not only to our members but to our past members and prospective members.”
The Elkton-based chamber has 450 members, and adding the other two categories grew the mailing list to 2,000. It primarily serves businesses in Cecil County, but its membership also includes firms in Harford and Kent counties and Delaware and Pennsylvania who do business in Cecil or want to expand there. All told, its membership represents the heart of the economic well-being of Cecil County.
“There were almost daily emails,” recalled John Slater, co-owner with his wife Wendy of Body Force Fitness in North East. “And the chamber also had someone review our grant applications.”
“The big thing that the chamber did was making sure all the information from the state Chamber of Commerce, the federal Small Business Administration was passed along,” he said. “Disaster loans, the Paycheck Protection Program and grants and resources from the Cecil County Office of Economic Development.” That effort paid off for him, with two county grants, paycheck protection and emergency and disaster loans.
“The chamber kept us on top of what small businesses needed to know,” added Jeanne Parry, human resources administrator for North East Enterprises.
Meetings and other connections
The chamber hosts 70 events a year, mostly on networking and education, and those events moved to Zoom to “still give members the opportunity to share resources and see each other,” Brown said.
The chamber’s virtual meetings began weekly and became less frequent as members became more comfortable with coronavirus restrictions, restrictions eased and businesses perked up.
“We had many comments about people feeling alone,” Brown said, and the virtual meetings made them “still feel part of society and not isolated.”
“We were all stuck at home, and the chamber was one of the first with Zoom meetings to give us access to the community,” said Johannah Bowman, clinical liaison for Amedisys Hospice in Elkton. “It was wonderful.”
“It was so easy to click here, click there and join a meeting,” she said, noting that through the chamber’s Zoom meetings she learned tips to improve social marketing and morale building.
She also praised the chamber’s Long-Term Care Roundtable. “This meeting was established for health-related partners in our community to have a place to come together, to better help each other through this difficult time,” she said. “Everyone was so grateful to have a platform to be able to come together and help one another, since there are no other resources like this in our community.”
The status of signature events
The March 26 Business Spotlight Luncheon became a mailing that was sent to all members.
The fourth annual Cecil County Manufacturers Appreciation Luncheon went virtual.
The 33rd annual Cecil County Chamber Golf Classic drew more participants this year – almost 100 golfers and almost 15 volunteers – to the Chesapeake Bay Golf Club in Rising Sun on Aug. 27. “People were so excited to get out,” Brown said. Two foursomes chose to participate on another day so that they could comply with their corporate restrictions on gatherings.
The state went to Stage 3 of of the Maryland Strong: Roadmap to Recovery on Sept. 4, and by Sept. 17, the chamber returned to in-person networking – outdoors and socially distanced – under a tent at Woody’s Crab House in North East. It’s planning to continue virtual and in-person events.
The fate of some other signature chamber events was not yet decided, including the third Annual Wonderland of Wreaths, an exhibit and silent auction; and Cecil Night in Annapolis, an annual gathering that usually draws 200 to 250 people to the capital in January.
“We are in talks with the Cecil County Arts Council to see how we will be able to proceed for the December event, Wonderland of Wreaths,” Brown said. “We are also investigating what our January event Cecil Night in Annapolis will look like. All still to be decided.”
The chamber also allowed business to defer membership payments by up to five months or pay in parts. A one-person business pays $280, with larger businesses paying more.