Chamber of Commerce: 60 years helping Milford businesses grow
The Milford Chamber of Commerce, the city's largest business organization, this year marks 60 years of promoting business, encouraging economic growth, and helping the community. The Chamber will cap the milestone on Nov. 22 with its 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration at the Great River Country Club.
Kathy Alagno, President and CEO of the Milford Chamber, knows that Milford has changed plenty since the Chamber was incorporated in 1954. She joined the Chamber as executive director in 1994. Some things, however, are constant like original Chamber members — including Howe's Drug Store, Stevens Ford, and The Milford Bank — that not only are still in business today, but also still claim Chamber membership.
The Milford Chamber is a member of the United States Chamber of Commerce, the national umbrella organization that represents in Washington, DC the interests of more than three million businesses. While not under the national group's control, Alagno said, the Milford Chamber uses their educational materials to help businesses. Formed in 1912, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce essentially provides business and commercial interests with an advisory role for national policy makers.
Fulfilling a role
Locally, the Milford Chamber has fulfilled its advisory role, and more, in its 60-year history.
With 550 members, the Milford Chamber includes everything from one-person businesses to Milford's largest industries like Bic, Schick, and Subway. Alagno estimates that 90% of the Milford Chamber membership is small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Chamber members range from restaurants to real estate; from attorneys to automobile dealers; and from welding shops to walk-in medical centers. Among the most unique is Dragonfly Aerial Media, which specializes in low altitude HD video and photography using custom-built drones. One of the original Chamber members, Howe's Drug Store, is a beloved downtown independent pharmacy.
Howe's owner, Ray Pantalena, called the Milford Chamber “the fabric of the business community. To say you're a Chamber member still means something. They do a great job fostering small business in town, and I really appreciate the fact that if you have questions, they're available immediately.”
Pantalena attested to the value of the marketing exposure and visibility offered through the Milford Chamber. Members also get many opportunities to make connections and network with other business owners.
“It's hard to quantify the benefit of networking,” said Scott Moulton, the 2014 Chairman of the Milford Chamber Board of Directors. Moulton, a financial advisor with Capital Management Group, is typical of the member who joins, reaps the benefits of Chamber membership, and then volunteers on various Chamber boards, committees and events. The Chamber has a small paid staff at its Broad Street office.
Another key service the Milford Chamber gives its members is legislative advocacy and updates, through the Chamber's Legislative Action Committee in conjunction with the Board of Directors. But even before the committee was formed in 1990, the Chamber was active in local policy matters affecting business.
For example, the newly minted Chamber in 1955 tackled downtown parking as its first major issue, according to the Chamber of Commerce history at milfordct.com. When the mall was completed in 1960, the Chamber backed the removal of parking meters in front of downtown shops. The Milford Chamber strongly opposed a state income tax, supported the repeal of the Blue Laws, opposed the post office moving from downtown and, in 1981, advanced the idea of replacing the mayor/aldermen system of government with a city manager.
Today, the Legislative Action Committee annually compiles a legislative agenda to “guide the Chamber so when an issue comes up and immediate action is necessary, the Board of Directors can move quickly to consensus and decide on action,” Alagno explained.
As if all this wasn't enough, the Chamber also works through several other committees and affiliates to help local residents and businesses alike.
For example, the Milford Chamber Trust donated $20,000 to the United Way of Milford for local victims of Hurricane Sandy. In 2000, the Chamber created the Phoenix Fund to help businesses that were displaced by a downtown fire.
The Chamber's Education Committee, funded by the non-profit Milford Chamber Trust, annually distributes scholarships to graduating high school seniors. Since 1998, Alagno said the Chamber has given out $46,000 in educational mini-grants to Milford students for community projects and more than $300,000 in scholarships.
Attorney Robert Kapusta, former Chairman of the Board of Directors, recalled the start of the scholarship program in 1981.
“Our chairman at that time (Edward Meinket) passed away and I became chairman,” said Kapusta. “We decided to set up a scholarship in his name, and I approached the heads of several large companies for seed money for the scholarship. They were very generous, and we kept it going right along.”
Kapusta noted that one of the Chamber's strengths is the ability to work collaboratively with its affiliates and with local government.
That said, will the Milford Chamber of Commerce last another 60 years? Moulton and Alagno agree it will, evolving in the process.
“A lot of today's interaction is web-based, and it's great,” said Moulton. “But I think the true value added by the Chamber of Commerce is the actual personal interaction. I still think we need to look people in the eye, shake their hand, and do business personally. You can't place a value on those relationships.”
Moulton said the relationships among members are enhanced by the volunteer labor they return to the Chamber. “This is a very hands-on volunteer organization,” he said.
Moulton and Attorney John Knuff volunteered to co-chair the upcoming 60th Anniversary Diamond Celebration on Nov. 22. The event will feature a gourmet dinner and wine pairing. A raffle will send one lucky guest home with a real diamond, donated by Valentine's Diamond Center. And, as a special treat, Joseph Pelaccia, President and CEO of Milford Hospital — another Chamber member — will perform as a piano soloist.
“This will be a great event,” Alagno said, noting that tickets are available by calling 203-878-0681.