By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Come September 1, the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce plans to close its Monticello office and hit the road.
In what Chamber President Terri Ward believes is a first-of-its-kind undertaking, the business advocacy organization will relocate to an RV and travel the county year-round.
In an interview last week, Ward joked that the Chamber has moved five times in the past seven years, “so we might as well be moving all the time!”
It was a laugh she had shared with coworker Cathy Paty earlier this year during an otherwise serious discussion about the unsustainable overhead costs from a bricks-and-mortar office.
Despite being situated on Broadway in the middle of the county seat, Ward said the Chamber just isn’t attracting enough walk-in business to justify expenses.
“We can’t be here anymore,” she related. “We’re losing money.”
Plus, she believes a static location open at the same time many Chamber members are busy running their companies may not be the best way to accomplish the Chamber’s goals.
“Our job is to service the businesses of Sullivan County,” she explained, “and we can’t fully do our job if we’re here with regular business hours.”
So instead of asking widely scattered Chamber members to trek to Monticello, Ward is taking the Chamber to them, via a 2002 Coachmen Cross Country RV that will park in spots around the county for two or more weeks at a time.
The 37-foot diesel behemoth has just over 100,000 miles and is in great condition, said Ward. Her father, former Town of Callicoon Highway Superintendent Jim Hess, lives near the RV’s owner in South Carolina and inspected it for her, along with a friend who’s an RV mechanic.
PriceRite Boat and Camper Sales owner Burgess Peters of Youngsville, who doesn’t sell the type of RV the Chamber wanted, guided Ward and company to southern locales, advising them that used RVs down south are often in better condition.
Ward combed through around 1,000 RV ads before settling on this one. Originally offered for around $50,000, the owner agreed to sell it for $45,000, she said.
It gets only about nine miles per gallon, but even with the high cost of diesel, Ward has calculated the RV method will save the Chamber nearly 40 percent in expenses.
So this Thursday, she and Paty, the Chamber’s vice president, will fly down to South Carolina to drive the RV up to Sullivan County, posting videos on the Chamber’s Facebook page as they go.
Once it arrives, the RV will be wrapped in the Chamber’s and sponsors’ logos and renovated to become an office instead of a home.
“The back is going to be a closed office,” Ward explained, in order to conduct private meetings.
But much of the rest will be an open reception and sitting area, and the kitchenette and bathroom will be retained.
A solar array and small windmill will be installed on the roof, so that the RV won’t have to plug in to the host parking lot’s electrical supply as often.
The Chamber’s phone number won’t change, and Ward anticipates having constant phone and Internet service via a combination of AT&T and Verizon cell phones and Time-Warner Cable wi-fi.
That means, however, that the Chamber must be picky in where it takes the RV.
“If something doesn’t have service, we can’t park there,” Ward said.
For September, the Chamber plans to spend a few weeks in Bethel Woods’ lot, then perhaps a spot in Barryville for October.
“We’re looking now at trying to be where the major happenings are,” she said.
Smaller towns, however, may still see the Chamber rolling in for a day or two from its parking spot in a larger community or venue.
“The RV will become our third employee,” she explained, hoping that it will also become a model effort.
“We’ll be going paperless,” she said. “We’re going to try to teach our members how to go paperless, too.”
There are several unknowns, however.
“I think the winter is going to be a challenge,” Ward admitted, in that snow and ice storms may keep the RV off the road.
There’s also the fact that no other chamber of commerce that Ward knows of has ever gone beyond a short-term, usually emergency use of an RV as its travelling office.
“I’m not going to say we’re scared I’m going to say we’re brave,” she admitted with a laugh. “But we have nothing to lose, because we’re going to save money.”
And if need be, the Chamber can return to a building and sell the RV, she added, predicting any loss wouldn’t exceed $15,000.
Rolling V Bus Company owner Phil Vallone, a Chamber member, has given Ward confidence, guiding her through the process and offering the use of his bus parking lots around the county.
The Chamber’s board, she added, has voted in support of the plan, with only two unidentified board members dissenting.
That vote is a departure from a few months ago, when Ward and Chamber Board Chairman Jeremy Gorelick were leading an effort to buy the nearby Ingber building in Monticello, to which the Chamber would relocate and start a business incubator.
“While I feel like it would be inappropriate for me to comment on my personal opinion or that of any other member of the board, I can share that the vote passed with the required majority at the meeting of the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce earlier this month,” said Gorelick, who’s got tenants lined up to replace the Chamber in its current location at the Peachtree Building, which he owns.
“Based on my research of the topic, I can say that the concept that Terri introduced of a mobile chamber is the first of its kind; while there are other examples of mobile chambers that have arisen due to emergency or disaster, this is the first instance of a chamber willingly going mobile to answer needs in its community,” he remarked.
Ward said other chambers across the country have expressed interest in the idea. She’s even given thought to patenting it but believes it would be a difficult process.
“I think we’re going to settle for the honor of being the first,” Ward affirmed.