After 123 years of service to the community, the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce remains a viable organization, though it has evolved over the years to meet the changing needs of businesses and the community.

Executive Director Bill Fleming said the chamber formed in 1893. Over the years, the name has changed. 

The Pekin Chamber of Commerce is one of the oldest chambers in this area and in 1916, the chamber hired its first paid employee.

“As I recall, their purpose was to promote the commercial growth of Pekin,” said Fleming. “Our mission statement has changed a little, but that’s still the basic purpose — to promote the commercial growth and help strengthen the local economy.

“I’m sure there have been times where they struggled financially. I think in the ‘80s, there were some struggles financially at the chamber when I first moved to town, but we’ve really been on really strong, solid financial footing for the last 25 years. We have added staff and hours at times to meet the needs of the organization as its has changed and evolved. Right now, a lot of our events rely on more staff support than they used to. It used to be a more volunteer supported and volunteer driven organization.”

The chamber board in 1971 was predominately male, older and primarily were upper management or the owner. Today, the board is male and female, has younger members and less than half are considered decision makers in the organization. Many live outside of Pekin.

Time crunch

Chambers have changed over the years to meet new demands and stay viable. Fleming said time sets the tone.

“As individuals we’re much busier than we’ve ever been,” he said. “Full-time employees generally are working more hours that they used to, in general.

“The work force has changed. You go back a couple of generations into the ‘60s and back then maybe a one-forth of the women with children at home worked outside the home. Today, it’s probably closer to three-fourths of families with children have both of their parents working. It’s just created this big time crunch that Americans work a lot of hours and there’s a lot of things competing for their time. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us when we ask people to serve on our board or serve on committees that their first response is ‘I don’t have the time.’”

As a result, the number of chamber committees have been reduced. There is a smaller board of directors, there are less meetings and there are on-going evaluations of programs and events.

For example, the Marigold Festival is an event that could not happen without the help of a significant number of volunteers, but with time constraints of volunteers and the fact that the festival has grown so much over the years, the paid staff of the chamber are required to do more.

Local economy

With the baby boomers came the demand for more of everything, said Fleming.

“As consumers, we started expecting more value and more from the products, and our services and business started delivering on that,” said Fleming. “Look at how many TV channels we have now, the number of movies on demand and things like that.

“The average grocery store carries, now, about 25,000 items, more than double 1978’s average. There’s just more expectations from everything and that includes business’ expectation of the chamber and what we’re going to do for them. In the 1970s, two generations ago, I think people joined the chamber because it was the right thing to do. You just did it — you were a good corporate citizen. Nobody joins the chamber for that reason anymore. They join because they want something from us. They want a return on their investment. It’s no longer viewed as a civic duty to join the chamber.”

That phenomenon does not apply only to the chamber, said Fleming. In 1965, 75 percent of doctors belonged to the American Medical Association. Now only 25 percent do.

There are fewer businesses than there were in 1971 or even 2001, said Fleming.

The Pekin chamber currently has about 380 members, probably two-thirds of the membership in the 1970s. Businesses typically are getting by with fewer employees who are doing more work.

“I think our high point since I’ve been here was 425. We don’t have as many factories or plants, and we certainly don’t have as much retail as we used to,” said Fleming.

There are more national brands. Nearly half of national chain retailers and restaurants don’t get involved in the chamber or charitable organizations.

“The phone company, the electric company, the gas company and the cable company (are examples),” said Fleming. “You think about all of those that used to have large staffs and large offices and a large presence in the community. Now, most of the customer service functions are somewhere else when you call.”

The chamber used to be the entity that handled economic development and tourism. That shifted to the city, but may be headed back to the chamber. Fleming said discussions have been held with the city about becoming more involved and is currently programming the Enjoy Pekin website and Facebook page for the city.

Fleming remembers the day when people would call the chamber for tourist information.

“I remember as a kid and we went on vacation somewhere, mom would call or write the chamber of commerce in the town we were going to visit and they would send you a packet of information about the community,” said Fleming. “Nobody does that anymore. You can find it all online. That’s kind of changed our role and maybe directed our activities more to other activities and events like the Marigold Festival and Fourth of July and trying to create more opportunities for visitors to enjoy our community.”

Other chambers similar

The Morton Chamber of Commerce’s mission is much the same as Pekin’s. 

It has five core goals — promote its members, provide learning opportunities and data to improve business operations, advocate for members at the local and state level, support of local projects and organizations, and develop a strong and growing economy, said Morton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director and Morton Economic Development CEO Leigh Ann Brown.

“As the Executive Director of Morton Chamber of Commerce and CEO of the Morton EDC, it provides opportunities for a deeper connectivity to our businesses and community,” said Brown. “My experience in economic development, community and downtown district development and tourism allows me to bridge people and projects to resources available and that’s ultimately the goal — empower people with knowledge and connectivity. The Morton Chamber of Commerce has a wide array of functions, educational programs and events giving our members, businesses and community the ability to connect and engage.”

The Morton Chamber hosts Pumpkin Festival.

“(It) was eye-opening on the community and business engagement with 2,000-plus volunteers and the depth of activities that occur for an entire week. A Chamber is often the front door to a community, an information center, community communication and conveyor to bring people together and our Morton Chamber of Commerce certainly has played those roles since established in the 1950s.”

Follow Sharon Woods Harris at Twitter.com/sharrispekin