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Maitland Chamber lays off executive director

The Maitland Chamber of Commerce is facing financial difficulty, but launching new initiatives.

The Maitland Chamber of Commerce is facing financial difficulty, but launching new initiatives.

Sarah Wilson

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Out with the executive director and in with volunteers. The Maitland Chamber of Commerce is struggling to pull itself together — both fiscally and in management — following a shakeup in leadership.

On July 20, Chamber President Ed Doyle informed Chamber members and the community that Maria Alvarez-Simmons was stepping down from her position as executive director of the Maitland Chamber. She had taken over for former Director Mary Hodge just a year ago this month.

Due to budgetary issues, Doyle said, the Chamber’s “house of cards” fell and could no longer afford to keep Simmons on fulltime.

“It’s our loss for the time being,” Doyle said. “We don’t have the income to support us operating the way we were operating and the way we want to be operating.”

Simmons did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday. On Wednesday, she sent the Observer a letter explaining her departure. (clink on the link to read it)

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Maria Simmons joined the Maitland Chamber of Commerce executive director in July 2011.

The Chamber, Doyle said, will continue to organize and offer the same services and events to the business community and its estimated 150-200 members, but all will be coordinated by board members and Chamber ambassadors who have been called upon to step up and fill Simmons’ void.

“Other people need — and probably should’ve stepped up — to do a little bit more,” Doyle said. “Now there’s no alternative.”

Phil Bonus, Maitland City Councilman and president-elect for the Chamber in 2013, asked for the City Council and community members in attendance at the July 23 Council meeting to support the Chamber in any way they can during this “transitional” period.

As an independent, privately run organization apart from the city, Bonus said the Chamber has never been funded by city dollars, but remains a vital and integral part of the community. But the organization “is failing, quite frankly.”

Doyle, Bonus and other Chamber board members say they are all working hard to step up and get creative to help save the chamber. With changes to the Chamber’s membership renewal policy, new events and a new website, along with better budgetary planning, all say the “Chamber 2.0” that will come out of these struggles will be better and stronger.

“We’re moving forward very, very fast and we’re seeing a lot of excitement,” board member George Williston said. “Maitland is a great, great place to be right now for new businesses… it’s real important that as board members we step up and greet them.”

Rebuilding its “house of cards”

The reason for the restructuring and Simmons’ departure, Doyle said, was one of strictly monetary concerns, not performance.

“Maria’s done more than she was asked to do. … But membership has not increased sufficiently to maintain the staffing cost,” Doyle said.

“This is predominantly and singularly a budgetary issue,” Bonus said, adding that he was also sad to see Simmons go.

Doyle said he hoped the Chamber could’ve held on with Simmons at the helm until the Taste of Maitland in October, which gives the organization a boost in revenue and provides half the Chamber’s fundraising budget, split with the Spring Arts Festival.

It became obvious a few weeks ago, Doyle said, that they weren’t going to make it to that goal, and like a house of cards, it came tumbling down.

“We realized we couldn’t afford to do it,” he said. “The membership renewals were just not coming in.”

To rebuild and keep anything like this from happening again, he said the Chamber as of this fall is revamping its membership renewal process, annualizing all memberships having them renew Jan. 1. This, he said, will give the Chamber a better look at what its budget holds ahead of time.

Bonus said the Chamber is taking the summer to regroup and come up with a more inventive business model, so that come the Taste of Maitland in October the “newly reinvigorated” Chamber can debut. This’ll include a streamlined budget, new events and increased membership drives all designed to increase revenue and value of membership within the Chamber.

Board members said that once on its feet again, the Chamber may likely seek a new executive director, but when that will be is unknown.

“You have to have somebody driving the bus. Right now we’re all bus drivers,” Williston said, speaking for members of the board, whom he said have all had to step up and take on new responsibilities.

“We have to all buckle down and hunker in together and carry on,” Bonus said. “The Chamber must continue and will continue.”