While the board of directors of the New Hope Chamber of Commerce has announced it’s taking a vacation this holiday season to attend to their “work and family obligations” and engage in a “thorough evaluation of its role in New Hope,” by most standard indications of functionality, the patient appears to have already expired.
For one thing, members of the group’s board of directors are continuing to head for the exits apace. At last count, that number appears to now hover around six, a major problem for an organization whose bylaws call for a minimum of 13 directors, seven of whom are required for quorum. Consequently, it is far from clear whether recent announcements and decisions by chamber officers represent the views and wishes of the board, let alone general membership. Board members Grover Stults, Paul Foglia and Brandon Wind did not respond to requests to confirm their status as directors.
Additionally, board member Stults, who also serves as chamber treasurer, did not reply to a request for information on the organization’s current bank balance (around $8,000, say sources who requested anonymity) and the amount of revenue generated by the chamber’s Arts and Crafts Festival in September. That event remains a sensitive topic, in part because the co-chairs of the Arts and Crafts committee authorized disbursements of $3,600 of cash awards to themselves and other chamber members at the Chamber of Commerce Holiday Party last year, according to a document subsequently prepared by Chamber President Roger Green.
Those cash handouts appear to fly in the face of Section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue Code, which “provides for the exemption of business leagues, chambers of commerce, real estate boards, boards of trade and professional football leagues, which are not organized for profit and no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual.” Article VIII of the chamber’s bylaws agrees: “No part of said funds shall inure, or be distributed, to the members of the organization.”
IRS code also calls for the chamber to promote the common business interest, yet the group announced Nov. 1 that it “will neither initiate nor sponsor any specific events during the 2014 holiday season.” It is traditionally estimated that Christmas alone accounts for 20% of U.S. retail sales.
Also problematic for meeting the requirements of IRC 501(c)(6) may be adhering to the directive not to “engage in a regular business of a kind ordinarily carried on for profit, even if the business is operated on a cooperative basis or produces only sufficient income to be self-sustaining.” It is estimated by some former chamber officials that the annual Arts & Crafts Fair may generate upwards of 80% of the chamber’s annual revenue, as opposed to dues from membership, which is down around two-thirds since its historical high. But the IRS directs that groups like the chamber “have a meaningful extent of membership support.”
On Oct. 29, the New Hope Chamber of Commerce considered disbanding itself at an “emergency meeting,” and has since debated the merits of self-dissolution or appointing an interim leader, according to those close to the situation. Whether or not the chamber self-destructs intentionally, refunds to members don’t appear to be in the offing. The chamber’s bylaws state, “On dissolution of the organization, any funds remaining shall be distributed to one or more regularly organized and qualified charitable, educational, scientific, or philanthropic organizations.”
Meanwhile, the chamber’s office on Stockton Avenue sits dark and unoccupied, the office manager having reportedly been terminated and the phone line disconnected.
Fortunately, a new organization of merchants dubbed the “New Hope Business Alliance” has sprung up to fill the holiday business promotion vacuum. Only time will tell whether that group will have the street credentials and consensus-building skills needed to assume the mantle of business leadership if and when the chamber officially flatlines.
Update: 10:47 p.m., Nov. 14
Statement from Roger Green, President, Greater New Hope Chamber of Commerce:
I am announcing my resignation as President of the Greater New Hope Chamber of Commerce. Over the past month, I have become a lighting rod for a great deal of anger and blame. Regardless of the reason for this, I cannot be effective as President. It is not fair to the merchants of New Hope for me to remain the president of the Chamber.
In 2014, the Chamber had many successes of which to be proud, including the recent Arts & Crafts Fair and High Heel Drag Race. While we sponsored these events and tackled other challenges, we were unable to fulfill all of the wishes and needs of the merchant. I regret we could not do better.
I am heartened that groups of merchants began to plan their own events, culminating in the Christmas tree lighting activities. In the end, the merchant community does best when it can advocate for itself. I hope that if there comes a time when the merchants feel that they would benefit from an active Chamber, one can be formed for them in a way that works best.
While I respect and acknowledge all those who served on the Board this year, Grover Stults deserves special recognition for bringing order to what had been exceptionally chaotic finances.
In the end, though, we were unable to transform the Chamber’s place in town the way the way we hoped. As President, responsibility for that failure lies with me.
I will stay on for as long as the Board chooses to aid in an orderly transition as the remaining Board members sort out how they would like the Chamber to proceed.
I remain a proud and vocal advocate of the merchants of New Hope, and hope I can serve effectively in some capacity in the future.