Officials Voice Concerns Over Chamber Name Change; OPA Reevaluating Membership

Officials Voice Concerns Over Chamber Name Change; OPA Reevaluating Membership
The Ocean Pines Chamber of Commerce office is pictured. Submitted image.

OCEAN PINES – A local chamber of commerce’s name change has prompted concern and criticism from several local officials.

In the wake of the Ocean Pines Chamber of Commerce’s name change to the Worcester County Chamber of Commerce, Worcester County Commissioner Chip Bertino and Ocean Pines Association (OPA) President Rick Farr have expressed their displeasure with the new moniker. Bertino worries about confusion with Worcester County Tourism and Economic Development and the fact that Ocean Pines businesses are losing their identity, and Farr says he is hearing from businesses upset about the change.

“The board as a whole does not support the name change and finds it very disappointing that the business community of Ocean Pines no longer has the distinct recognition of having a chamber of commerce,” Farr said. “I have received many calls from the business community and they are very upset with the change.  While the board does not get involved with the day-to-day operations of Ocean Pines, we do represent residents who are business owners in our community. Local chambers such as the Ocean Pines Chamber of Commerce should be the single advocate that best to represents the community and the local businesses that reside within it.”

Worcester County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kerrie Bunting, however, believes the name change will better reflect the organization’s efforts and will strengthen Worcester County.

“Within Worcester County, we are fortunate enough to have a county Office of Economic Development and Tourism, multiple town Offices of Economic Development, Tourism Departments, and five independent Chambers of Commerce,” she said. “All of these entities work in concert toward the common goal of attracting, retaining, and supporting businesses and nonprofits.  Is there overlap?  Definitely, that’s where collaboration and cooperation come into play.  But there are also distinct functions each can offer the others to accomplish that goal.  While the concept of a chamber utilizing the name of their home county is new for Worcester, it is far from unique.”

Bunting shared news of the chamber’s name change with partners last month. Bertino, a past president of the chamber, expressed his thoughts regarding the new name at the close of this week’s commissioners meeting.

“The assertion that the Worcester County Chamber of Commerce is better positioned to advocate for Worcester County and the entire lower shore region and best suited to assist county agencies in achieving these goals is inaccurate,” he said. “It is disappointing and dismissive of the worthy efforts and accomplishments of Worcester County Tourism and Economic Development as well as the businesses and individuals who support the chambers commerce in Ocean City, Berlin, Snow Hill and Pocomoke.”

He said Worcester County Tourism and Economic Development had a team of folks that engaged with local chambers to promote commerce and showcase local communities.

“Worcester County Economic Development and Tourism is best suited to represent and articulate, in collaboration with the local chambers, these benefits and values at the regional, state and federal levels.  It is counterproductive to this tradition that a single local chamber would set itself apart as a countywide entity and whether intended or not, eclipse and alienate the efforts of the local chambers of commerce and Worcester County Economic Development and Tourism.”

Bunting, however, said there was no reason the chamber couldn’t work collaboratively with Worcester County and other local groups.

“Chambers of commerce have existed in symbiotic partnerships with county and town economic development departments for decades,” she said. “To imply that they cannot coexist and join forces to improve the area’s economic health and stability does a disservice to both agencies.  Chambers focus on the private sector.  They provide support to individual businesses or nonprofits by offering networking, marketing, and educational opportunities.  As chambers are nonprofits, they are able to advocate for or against legislation that may affect their members.  All chambers are governed by their own board of directors, who are themselves local business owners.  Another major function of chambers is as a community event organizer.  Festivals, parades, tournaments, exhibitions, are all events chambers facilitate for residents and visitors.”

Reaction to the change within the community appears to be mixed. Marlene Ott, a local real estate broker, said “Why?” was the question she kept hearing.

“I suppose it’s a good thing but I’m not sure losing the Ocean Pines ‘branding’ is worth it,” she said.

John Viola, general manager of the Ocean Pines Association, said he met with Bunting Tuesday afternoon and confirmed that the association was considering leaving the chamber.

“We met with Chamber leadership and encouraged them to change the name back or at least incorporate ‘Ocean Pines’ into the new name,” Viola said in a statement. “We are reevaluating our membership at this time.”

Bertino made his reservations about the change clear as well.

“I believe county government should not support, encourage, promote or engage in any activity or effort by the newly named Worcester County Chamber of Commerce that undercuts or diminishes the roles of the other chambers within their individual communities or interferes with the objectives of Worcester County Economic Development and Tourism or attempts to co-opt the relationships county government has with local, regional, state and federal partners and businesses,” he said.

Donna Frankowski, a chamber board member, said there was no reason a countywide chamber couldn’t coexist with other entities.

“It must also be understood that government run economic development offices are totally different entities, which often work in collaboration with chambers of commerce to support and serve local businesses,” she said. “We, here in Ocean Pines, have an extremely vibrant, dynamic chamber and much of its success can be attributed to our president Kerrie Bunting.”

She said that since Bunting came on board about five years ago, the chamber’s membership base had grown significantly. In 2022, after an in-depth strategic planning workshop, Frankowski said the board realized the chamber was limited by the relatively few businesses within the borders of Ocean Pines. The chamber’s growth reflected an increase in members from surrounding areas, which led the board to believe the chamber had outgrown its borders.

As a result, the chamber began pursuing expansion.

“We have spent months researching and planning this expansion,” Frankowski said. “In May this year, Kerrie invited other chambers in the county, county commissioners, and representatives from the county department of economic development among others to discuss our idea and address possible concerns.  This decision was not made lightly! Essentially, our plan is not to change how our chamber runs; our goal is to signal to businesses further afield, that we are willing and able to provide service and support from our Ocean Pines location.  The most obvious way to do this is to change our name to reflect inclusion of the entire county.”

Those concerned with the change, however, maintain that businesses throughout the county are already being supported by the chambers closest to them and through the efforts of Worcester County’s economic development team.

“It is hoped that during this season of ‘peace and good will to all,’ that efforts are made by the Worcester County Chamber of Commerce to reestablish the bonds of good will that have existed among the businesses, communities, organizations, chambers of commerce and government agencies throughout Worcester County and beyond,” Bertino said. “As a community, as a county, we are most successful when we work collaboratively and collectively in pursuit of common goals.  That’s the Worcester way.”

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.