Plan to merge MDA, Chamber of Commerce is potentially transformational
The Web sites for the Metropolitan Development Association and the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce seem to exist in parallel universes.
The Chamber's welcome message notes that "our (business) members realize that, through the Chamber, they can accomplish collectively what they cannot accomplish individually ... .” The MDA, meanwhile, highlights its “team approach in assisting companies interested in relocation or expansion ... .”
Collective action? Team approach? Sounds good in theory. In practice, a gulf has separated the two organizations — until now, at least.
On Friday, a joint committee representing both groups announced plans to speak with one voice, at long last. “We want a seamless program so companies have one organization to turn to for assistance,” said Robert Simpson, president and CEO of the MDA and prospective head of the merged entity.
The two organizations have spent a total of 170 years promoting business and development. This new determination to join forces represents the kind of transformational change the region needs to thrive in the global economy.
Consolidation always poses challenges. The Chamber, founded in 1889, comprises mainly small businesses and provides services like group health insurance to its 2,000 members, recruits conventions, lobbies for pro-business policies and runs an incubator for new technology companies.
Founded in 1959, the MDA is an invitation-only group of 197 members, the majority of them CEOs of major firms. It promotes large projects and big ideas, like the Carrier Dome and the Syracuse Center of Excellence.
Economic trends contributed to the decision to merge. Company headquarters and large manufacturers have disappeared from Central New York, and pressure has grown to promote the region in a more focused way.
New leaders also were a key factor. David Cordeau retired from the Chamber in 2006, Irwin Davis from the MDA in 2008. With Darlene Kerr at the Chamber and Simpson at the MDA, merger talks soon were under way.
The merger would combine staffs under Simpson, with Kerr serving on the board of the as-yet-unnamed new entity. The merger still must be approved by the organizations’ boards and memberships, a process that could be completed by mid-February.
Central New York needs to amplify its voice in the wider economic conversation, promote its assets more effectively and spend its energy on job creation, not turf battles. That’s a big job for a region still fractured into hundreds of municipal entities, school districts and other fiefdoms, each with its own agenda.
Economic development is just one example of this inefficient, outdated approach to local governance and development. Since the late 1990s, the Syracuse Economic Growth Council has sought to coordinate business growth and job retention efforts. But it remains an uneasy coalition of some two dozen separate public and private entities — and even became a site for friction in the past between the Chamber and the MDA.
This is a new day, however. The recent blockbuster run of the “Turner to Cezanne” art exhibition showed that myriad Syracuse organizations can unite in a successful effort. The successful transfer of police services from the town of Clay to the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department remains an object lesson for hard-pressed taxpayers and other local leaders looking to streamline government services and save dollars. The apparent amity between new Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney is another hopeful sign that government leaders are getting the message.
With any luck, Simpson at the MDA and Kerr at the Chamber will lead their boards and members into this new day. Then their combined agency, newly energized by the cooperation of its partners, can become a model for others.