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Business owners unhappy with Henderson Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce

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HENDERSON HARBOR — Disappointed in what they see as a lack of accountability and lack of effort to promote businesses, several community members are banding together to call for change at the Henderson Harbor Area Chamber of Commerce.

However, the agency’s president, Karl R. Williams, contends that the chamber’s issues stem from a lack of support and volunteer interest.

Peter M. Price, owner of Henderson Storage, 8324 Route 3, has been speaking to other business owners for the past four months to gauge opinions about the organization, and said he received positive feedback for his efforts from about 10 of them. Among the complaints he’s received about the organization is a lack of activity promoting the area. In addition to allegedly providing little in community outreach for more than a year, the chamber’s website has not been updated for months.

“There’s nothing being done to promote our businesses,” Mr. Price said. “Absolutely nothing.”

Other business owners voiced confusion about the timing of meetings, which they say are changed or canceled without advance notice, along with personal disputes that have drained enthusiasm.

The reduced efficacy of the chamber, in Mr. Price’s opinion, hurts businesses that could benefit from the harbor’s beauty and the state’s promotion of area waterways.

“People are going through with $100 bills, and the businesses here have nothing to show for it,” Mr. Price said.

The drop in activity is a disappointment for business owners who have partnered with the chamber in the past.

Dean A. Witmer, who helps to run the Henderson Harbor Classic Boat and Car Show, said that when the show formed seven years ago, the first thing organizers did was join the Chamber of Commerce.

“Our goal and their goal was to build business in the community, and to bring people into the community,” Mr. Witmer said. Over time, he said, the chamber’s participation declined, culminating with last year’s show.

“They made a lot of promises to help the boat show, and didn’t really carry through,” Mr. Witmer said. He called the chamber in its current form “dysfunctional,” and pointed to the Clayton Chamber of Commerce as an example of how things could be done better.

Many of the business owners who spoke to the Times linked the organization’s current woes with the July 2010 Waterfront Festival, which at the time left the group with approximately $28,000 in debt.

“It was definitely an oversold event,” said Robert E. Aliasso, a former board member.

The outcry from the event led to an attempt to remove Mr. Williams as president in late 2010. However, only a majority vote could be raised, and not the two-thirds vote necessary for such a move.

Since then, the chamber has for the most part has gone quiet, even declining to request town of Henderson funds to help support its operations.

“It is active, but we’re not aggressively pushing things,” Mr. Williams said.

He blamed the debt from the event on town requests to have extra insurance, security and transportation, and said a year of work had brought the debt from the event down to about $12,000.

Mr. Williams said the chamber hadn’t taken town funds because the Henderson Town Council had required what he considered an unnecessary number of requests to receive funds, and had stipulated town money couldn’t be used to service the chamber’s debt.

Town Supervisor Raymond A. Walker said the town’s main interest was to determine that the money was being used appropriately.

“We want to know how the money is being used,” Mr. Walker said. “Face it, we’re using taxpayer money to support this.”

Mr. Williams said that the chamber was active in the past because of the hard work he and four other chamber members did, and that his long days took away time from plans to run his own online business.

“We were very aggressive, and now we’re kind of resting,” he said.

The lack of time also prevented him from updating the chamber’s website, which he said did much of the chamber’s advertising, with its annual draw of 750,000 to 1 million visitors.

Mr. Williams said that his term is coming to a close at the group’s annual meeting in the fall, and that he does not plan to continue as president. He said he continues to serve as president despite the opposition “only because I gave my word that I would do as good a job that I can.”

However, the organization’s current state leaves some questions about how the future leadership would move the chamber in a positive direction.

“It would be hard for me or somebody else to step in with the debt he’s created,” said Mitchell L. Franz, a charter boat captain. Mr. Franz said he’d been a business member of the chamber for ages, and expressed concerns that membership forms and renewal notices had not been sent out this year.

“I don’t think there’s any members of the chamber this year,” he said.

In Mr. Williams’s opinion, one of the largest issues facing the group and the community is finding people who will work together to find solutions to problems.

“A lot of people want to regurgitate the past, and not move forward,” Mr. Williams said. “This is a community that the Hatfields and McCoys could study.”

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