GNAT Dispatch: Business association plans for future

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MANCHESTER — The Manchester Business Association, a group of local businesses organized to market themselves and the town to visitors, is planning for its future while reaching a point where more volunteers and more funding is becoming essential to maintain forward progress.

The association, formed last year following the demise of the Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber, hopes to raise enough money from at least three sources to support an anticipated budget of about $253,000 to support its website outreach and marketing efforts, said Paul W. Carroccio, the president of the association's board of directors, at an informational meeting held Wednesday, Nov. 29, at the Manchester Community Library. About 40 business owners and other interested members of the public attended to hear the most recent update on where the organization is headed.

"We have our plan for 2018 and now we need to figure out how to pay for it," he said towards the end of a more than hour-long presentation and discussion. "That's why we're here tonight."

Revenues from advertising on the organization's website - which Carroccio said had drawn substantial traffic and well as posting a solid "click-thru" rate which measures how often viewers navigated from the association's website to an individual company's own website where the chances of selling something improve - plus some donations from motivated businesses and residents had gotten them this far, but in order to grow and build on that, more money is needed.

"This is our biggest challenge - this all doesn't happen for free," Carroccio said. "There's a lot of in-kind stuff going on but if we want to keep this alive we're going to have to start paying for it."

The website has been a primary focus for the business association, and it has succeeded in signing up about 170 businesses while generating about 60,000 page views per month, as well as 18,000 unique site visits per month. All the digital marketing is tracked, measured and analyzed monthly. Providing benchmarks and metrics to measure the success or failure of each initiative is an important part of the service they are offering, Carroccio added.

In addition, the association has kept the newly opened Visitor's Center, housed in a building off the Roundabout donated by local businesswoman Lana Hauben, open on weekends post-foliage season.

One new source of funding Carroccio and the other directors of the association are hoping pans out is a proposal to share a portion of the local option tax revenues generated within the town. At the Manchester Select Board's meeting on Oct. 24, Carroccio outlined a proposal where a percentage of revenues above a certain amount would be shared with the business group. If local option money - which is derived from a 1 percent surcharge on sales and use taxes - reaches certain agreed upon levels, the town, which uses the local option tax money to lower the municipal property tax rate, would turn over some of that additional revenue to the association, on the theory that some of that increase was due to the association's marketing efforts.

Select board members seemed interested in the concept, but held off making a commitment or signaling that they would sign on to that at a later point. The issue might become a part of the town's March Town Meeting warning.

If an agreement were to be struck with the town -- and Carroccio and his fellow directors are hoping that if it can, it would produce somewhere between $50-100,000 in revenue for the organization -- that would seem to make their initial dedicated focus on marketing Manchester businesses exclusively somewhat more viable. An alternative might be to open the website to businesses located outside of the town but within the region. They began their efforts 10 months or so ago with an intent to promote town-based businesses, and in exchange received some public money totalling about $72,000 raised for marketing purposes under an earlier campaign that had gone unspent to get the association up and running. But that agreement will come to an end by next March.

"Our pitch has been that this is a very targeted - like a rifled approach - on the town of Manchester and its brand," Carroccio told the audience.

"We are not within the regional (SHIRES) brand. We focused selfishly on the town of Manchester because we've had and we continue to think we're going to have town money and one of the conditions of town money was only to market Manchester assets."

In a subsequent interview, Carroccio said that without a response from the town, the association has decided to accept members from outside the town of Manchester.

Another potential source of funds might be to start charging membership fees, with a two-tiered structure depending on whether or not a business wanted a "digital only" membership - allowing them to advertise, list events and be promoted on manchestervermont.com, the organization's website - or one that also had a "bricks and mortar" component to it. That could yield somewhere between $100-125,000 in funds, Carroccio said.

Another need is for more volunteers to step forward to help with the work, the lion's share of which is being handled by the 11 members of the board who also have businesses of their own to run. If enough funds are gathered, the organization could bring in some paid staff or find an organization to manage the nuts-and-bolts work of the group, he said.

In the discussion phase that followed Carroccio's main presentation, questions were asked possible membership price breaks for non-profit entities, attracting service industries like auto repair, plumbing, accounting and medical businesses. There was also discussion about the possible impact of enhanced collection of use tax revenue from internet sales, which have been unevenly reported by businesses and consumers up until the recent past. The growth of online commerce has meant that the state's tax department is giving closer scrutiny to businesses that sell over the internet and their local option tax collections.

Another idea that has been discussed is a special lodging tax in addition to the existing local option tax that would be charged to visitors.

Carroccio also appealed to their membership to show up at Town Meeting and support the association's efforts, especially if a decision on the local option tax money is on the agenda.

"If it gets to a town vote, we need this room to show up at Town Meeting," he said.

Andrew McKeever is the News Director at Greater Northshire Access Television (GNAT-TV).

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