Chamber proposes taking over Main Street program

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By Tom Wilmoth

With Bedford Main Street, Inc., in a state of transition after having lost its executive director earlier this year, the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce has proposed that it take over the administration of the program.

    But the recommendation is not being embraced by the Main Street board.

    In a presentation to Bedford City Council last week, Chamber President Susan Martin suggested a “blending” of the two organizations under the Chamber banner. That, she said, “would raise visibility and bring expertise, access and strategic partnerships that will help those businesses associated with the Main Street program to achieve more.”

    She proposed the formation of a Downtown Business Alliance, as a division  of  the Chamber. “As a Main Street resident and member of the downtown area for more than 35 years, the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce believes in strengthening the downtown area,” she said.

    Martin said the “alliance” would be managed as a committee of the Chamber and would be free to develop its own mission and priorities. “The additional benefits provided by the Bedford Area Chamber of Commerce will bring additional strength to this redesigned alliance and the individual businesses it represents,” she said.

    Martin asked the city for $25,000 to help fund the program through the Chamber, proposing that the change be completed by July. She said the Chamber, with its work in Forest and Smith Mountain Lake, has expanded its influence throughout the county, but decided “it’s time to come home and do more work locally.”

    In making the request, Martin said she had been approached by business owners, city officials and council members about the possibility. “It seemed like a natural fit,” she said of the blending of the organizations, adding that some of the same services are provided by both.

    While Martin, in response to a question from Councilman James Vest, said that the program could still be operated as a Main Street program through the Chamber, that point is in dispute. “We worked hard to become a Main Street community,” Vest said not wanting to lose that distinction.

    Main Street Board Director Diane Wilson said the program could not operate under the Chamber umbrella, as proposed. “Main Street would simply go away,” she said if the Chamber’s request was taken, adding that she felt Martin had “not done her homework” on that issue.

    Wilson said the two organizations serve different purposes.

    “We work with the merchants downtown for their benefit,” she said. “We’re not in a contest with the Chamber. We’re simply two different animals doing two different things.”

    She said Bedford Main Street is a non-profit organization that filters the money that comes back to the community. “It just can’t be run the way she has mentioned. ...We’re not in it for the dollars. We’re in it for keeping Bedford alive.”

    Wilson added that the organization is not about memberships. “We’re about revitalization and retention.”

    She said the Main Street board would be meeting this week to discuss the matter.

    “Our goal is that we ensure the commercial district’s future. That’s what a Main Street (program) is about,” Wilson said. “Main Street takes care of the downtown.”

    She said while there could be a working relationship with the Chamber, “it would never be such that we would be absorbed into the Chamber.”

    Wilson said she expects to have the opportunity to answer the proposal by the Chamber before council. She said the Chamber had not contacted Main Street board members prior to making the request. “This was all news to us,” she said.

    Last month council voted to give Bedford Main Street $10,000 to finish out the year. The city had provided the funding to pay the executive director’s position, but that was cut when that position became vacant in January. Bedford Main Street has requested $25,000 to help fund the program next year.

    Wilson said the board is moving forward with its transition and planning for its two main events this year, Bedford Blues and Barbecue and Centerfest. She also said the organization will be sponsoring a business seminar next month on merchandising for Bedford merchants. “We have a full board and we’ll be moving on. Down the road we’ll be looking for an executive director.”