October 11, 2018, The Merrill Chamber of Commerce will gather for its annual celebration and awards, kicking off their 108th year. Since 1911, the Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce has been supporting and working with area businesses to live, work and play.
The Merrill Chamber of Commerce was one of the first chamber’s in Wisconsin and as such they are listed on the corner stone of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building in Washington D.C. Also, in 1911, the Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, better known as Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce, was established.
“Not all Chambers are created equally,” said Debbe Kinsey, Merrill Chamber CEO. “Just because they call themselves chambers does not mean that they do chamber programs. In fact, many small chambers are tourism entities, with that being their primary goal/mission.”
The Merrill Chamber of Commerce is first and foremost a Chamber of Commerce. But unlike a lot of chambers, they wear many hats. They also have a very active Chamber of Commerce Foundation, a charitable not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization and they are the City of Merrill Tourism Administrator.
As a chamber they are a private, membership organization, comprised of business investors. They are not an entity of the city or county governments. As an organization they assist local businesses with marketing (such as website, visitor guide, community profile, Member to Member Program, brochures, Red Carpet Program, digital sign, social media, newsletter, info blasts) networking (Business after Hours, Morning Mixers, Nothing but Networking, Circles of Influence groups, Cr-EAT-e & Connect, golf outing, Women of Distinction), educational workshops (with UW-Stevens Point, NTC and other specialists), they are an Ombudsman between business partners and government entities, and economic development (business/schools programs, Inspire, Future Wisconsin Project, Merrill Gift Certificate Program, business surveys, Ribbon Cuttings, Centergy, ITBEC, Lincoln County Economic Development). They also provide advocacy for their members on all levels.
Some of their “community betterment” programs include: Christmas Parade, Crazy Daze, Movie in the Park, Pork in the Park Ribfest, Relocation Packets, Ambassador Club – ribbon cuttings, New Teacher Orientation Bus Tours, meeting with company new hires, and answering 1000’s of information inquires monthly.
The Chamber is a member of Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce (WMC), Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce Executives (WCCE), American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), and Mid-West Chamber of Commerce. The chamber staff also represent their business investors and the community of the following boards: ITBEC-County Boards Association, ITBEC Northern Wisconsin Tourism Board, United Way, Lincoln County Economic Development Board, Merrill Area Development Corporation Board, Lincoln County Emergency Management, River Bend Trail, and Centergy, Inc.
The Circles of Influence groups have very beneficial in 2018, linking similar groups together to share ideas about business and the Merrill community. After meeting with MAPS, they launched the idea about having an Inspire Program here as a linkage to MAPS Career Cruising programming. Since pitching it to the state, the Wisconsin Workforce Development Board saw its merits and has made it possible for the entire state to benefit from the Inspire Program. We now work as a region with the neighboring chambers: Wausau, Marshfield, Wisconsin Rapids and Portage County to bring Inspire to our communities and local businesses.
Since then, this group of five chambers have been working together on programs that are beneficial to our region on numerous fronts such as economic development, education and government.
In addition, the Merrill Chamber and the Wausau Chamber have recently joined forces to develop an economic development plan for our own region. The two communities share many businesses, residents, employees and obstacles, so it makes sense that Merrill should be a part of the overall Wausau comprehensive planning process.
The Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Inc. is a charitable, not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization whose mission is in the areas of education, beautification and community development. They house many pass-through accounts for entities (volunteer groups) that promote Merrill in those categories. Those accounts include the Hanging Flower Baskets, Courthouse Christmas Lighting, Friends of Normal Park, Friends of the Merrill City Band, Friends of the River Bend Trail, Emergency/Disaster Fund, For the Love of Merrill, Merrill Events, Merrill Small Business Scholarship, Discover Downtown Merrill and the Foundation account. When the tornado hit Merrill, the foundation raised and disbursed over $250,000 to area residents that were uninsured or underinsured. And the application process developed for this disaster has been replicated several times in other communities since the disaster.
As the City of Merrill Tourism Administrator, they oversee most of the Room Tax dollars collected. Working with the city’s Tourism Commission, an annual budget is set based on room tax dollars collected. They are one of the few organizations that have a grant application process for the volunteer entities in the community that produce tourism events. These grants help to pay for advertising outside of Merrill, that will bring “heads in beds” for overnight stays in Merrill, since this is what the funds are derived from. Each year the commission gives out approximately 15 grant awards to entities that bring community events to Merrill. Some of these events include: Rodeo, Fair, BarleyFest, Pork in the Park, Concertina Festival, Merrill Ice Drags, Winterfest Dog Sled Races, Gleason Mud Bogs & Heritage Days, Merrill Airport Days, Lobsterfest, Black Squirrel Scurry Triathlon, Love Me Tender Variety Show, Gazebo Nights, Labor Day Car Show and the Merrill Tractor Pull. As the tourism administrator, the Chamber is tasked with overseeing the grant process, monitoring the progress and paying out the grants.
In addition, the Chamber is also tasked with marketing Merrill for tourism. In the past nine years, visitor spending has gone from $16 million annually to $56 million thru 2017, an increase of 3.9% from 2016. This is due in part to a very vigorous marketing campaign that the Chamber has put together, by watching trends, website opens, comments, promotions and other tracking devices. January through September the Chamber received 74,175 direct inquires compared to 82,479 inquiries for all of 2017. Our information foyer is open 24/7. And they have disbursed visitor guides/information to 26,019 individuals thru September, compared to 23,925 individuals in 2017.
According to the Department of Tourism Total Business Sales in Lincoln County were $87.5 million in 2017, an increase of 2.4% from 2016. Visitors to the county generated $5.7 million in state and local tax revenue during 2017.
“While we cannot be everything to everyone, we do have our fingers on the pulse of the area businesses,” concluded Kinsey. “We don’t always want to be at the front of the line, but you can bet that we are in the background of most things. We want our business partners to be successful and our community to flourish – all that and more is happening for Merrill.”