New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce's Rapid Growth Brings Benefits and Some Controversy

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New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce's Rapid Growth Brings Benefits and Some Controversy

January 18, 2013 - 21:54

EliGordon1NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- The membership of the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce is alive and well under the leadership of Executive Director Eli Gordon thanks to an innovative insurance program that has brought hundreds of new members and some controversy among members of the old guard.

The Chamber, founded in 1940, had fallen on hard times in recent years. A series of financial scandals involving past leaders and defections following the creation of the New Rochelle Downtown Business Improvement District in 2000, had pushed the Chamber of Commerce to the brink.

The low point came in 2009 when the annual Chamber Thanksgiving Day Parade was cancelled over funding and organizational issues. The biggest money-maker for the Chamber, the annual Halloween Haunted House had folded amidst allegations of financial improprieties.

As the Chamber floundered, the Downtown BID flourished. As the BID grew to over 800 business and property owners focused on economic development, new business and new investment in the downtown area, the Chamber was on life-support. The once-thriving organization had dropped to just 80 members.

"And half of those were 'unpaid' members," says Chamber President Rosemary McLaughlin who proudly notes that membership today stands at 660, a staggering 800% growth in just over two years.

The phenomenal growth has not come without controversy. Some long-time Chamber members have complained privately that the growth consists almost entirely of "phantom" members assigned to the Chamber through a discount insurance program created by Gordon in partnership with a local insurance broker.

Anxiety over the mission of the Chamber came to a boiling point last spring when some board members say they first became aware that Gordon was receiving a commission on top of his $30,000 a year salary as a part-time employee of the Chamber. Gordon had been receiving a quarterly "bonus" check based on a percentage of memberships sold without the knowledge of board, according to some board members. McLaughlin disputes those claims.

"People did not listen," she says. "The Board approved the hiring of Eli. A contract was later approved by the entire board."

McLaughlin insists the amounts paid to Gordon as commission were small.

Part of the problem is the stated mission of the organization. IRS filings reviewed by Talk of the Sound show that the Chamber has annually described the organization's mission or most significant activities as "Stimulating activity throughout the business community by sponsoring events which attract visitors and shoppers to the area."

Critics argue that insurance discounts do not attract shoppers to New Rochelle and that Gordon and McLaughlin have effectively turned the New Rochelle Chamber of Commerce into an insurance agency with Gordon earning what amounts to a sales commission on insurance premiums. They contend that the focus on insurance sales is distracting the organization from its core mission.

McLaughlin does not agree.

She says that organizations need to adapt to be successful and that there is nothing unusual about a Chamber of Commerce having members from outside their city of operation. Ultimately, she says, it is the "traditional" members who benefit.

"Having other members allows us to offer additional programs and better services than we would otherwise be able to offer," says McLaughlin.

There is no arguing that Gordon and McLaughlin have improved the financial condition of the Chamber, based on recent tax returns filed with the IRS.

In 2009, the Chamber was basically broke. In 2011, the last year on file, the Chamber ended the year with over $67,000 in assets. Membership revenue nearly tripled from $30,620 in 2009 to $102,178 in 2011. Overall revenues grew rom $116,753 to $195,836.

"Without the insurance members the Chamber would be bankrupt," says McLaughlin. "We had to try something different."

Although she would not provide exact figures, sources tell Talk of the Sound that Chamber membership today consists largely of these so-called "insurance members", people who pay dues solely for the purpose of obtaining insurance.

McLaughlin sees no conflict between people who join the Chamber to get discounted insurance anymore than people join the Chamber to get access to networking events, the membership mailing list or any other benefit offered by the organization.

She described two ways in which the Chamber membership has grown as a result of the insurance program. Members join the organization to access the insurance program and are then referred to the insurance broker who actually sells the insurance. The Chamber is not paid for the referral but gets the membership dues which are typically $200 per membership. Alternatively, a customer of the broker is referred to the Chamber and becomes eligible for insurance coverage as a member of a business association upon joining. McLaughlin declined to provide figures for the number of members who join through these two routes.

For McLaughlin it does not matter how or why a member joins, just that they do join.

"These members are the same as every member," said McLaughlin. "They vote in every election and are on the Chamber e-mail list."

There are 6 Comments

What kind of insurance and who is the local broker?

Robert Cox's picture

I believe it is health insurance but the Chamber President said that they were not notified as to what sort of insurance a member buys.

As for the broker, my understanding it is a "local" broker meaning in Westchester not necessarily in New Rochelle. I believe it is one particular broker and not a group of brokers but I am not certain.

If you are interested in obtaining insurance you can contact the Chamber directly but I will look into doing a follow up piece that explains the details on how folks can actually get the insurance and what sort is available and from who.

As for those numbers,highly doubtful and inflated.Just what New Rochelle needs,another discount insurance agency along with all the dollar stores,Mexican shit houses,and second hand stores.Nice job Chamber.Oh yea,how much to insure my 2009 Chevy?

Illegal aliens are in the Chamber?Thats all we have left willing to have a business in NR.Come to think of it,thats all that shop in NR.Wait,thats all thats left in NR.Too bad its not a real chamber we can throw them in and ship them all back.

Take their blowhard mouthpiece Martin Sanchez too

Though I rarely comment, there are just too many factual errors in this article.

Firstly, much of the "old guard" died off, moved or resigned.

Secondly, Mr. Gordon was hired by vote and his contract approved by the Executive Committee. Right, wrong or otherwise, this was the deal.

Thirdly, there were no financial improprieties. The Chamber had simply fallen on hard times and bad oversight as well as a loss of revenue streams.

Fourth, the Haunted House was not cancelled because of improprieties. Factually, and exactly, the event was cancelled because certain City officials declined to allow the event to continue at the Armory because "we are building." Wdell the building never happened, the armory stands today, neglected and abused, and the Chamber was forced to find another location. The location they found, on LeCount was approved, had safety devices and was ready to go and BUILT to open when the City decided against allowing it at the location because of its proximity to New Roc, new safety concerns, invented possible problems and all this discovered about five days prior to the scheduled opening. It was then that the event was abandoned and never reintroduced. A huge loss for the Chamber, City and the thousands that visited the event.

Finally, many organizations, Board's of Realtors, civic groups, AARP, etc., offer insurance programs as part of membership. This is not unusual. One would hope that these members would have something to do with the organization but it is an income stream to keep the underlying organization afloat. It is perfectly acceptable and normal though I would hope that the Broker was chosen fairly and openly and not politically or through friendship.

Though not necessarily a chamber "supporter" or enthusiast, the Chamber had sufferred from poor leadership choices for a number of years, had been on the brink of financial collapse on and off for years and, like it or not, Ms. Mclaughlin has resurected this group, I wish her much luck and strength, and believe that the Chamber has done alot of good in the past, provided alot of events and information, and however she can make it happen I hope that she can return it to its glory days as it bodes poorly for our City if its Chamber of Commerce goes under.

Maybe Noam can take it over, create a special charge for it (like the library, garbage) and keep it going like he has kept our City going like a dictatorship. Nah, lets let Ms. McLoughlin do it her way unless we have a better answer.