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Tammy Verigin-Burk: Growing the Castlegar Chamber by rethinking its philosophy
Tammy Vergin-Burk knows about the importance of communication.
She’s the executive director of the Castlegar Chamber of Commerce, in British Columbia’s southern Interior – a Chamber that has seen its membership grow by over a third since she took the job three and a half years ago.
That isn’t the only feather in Verigin-Burk’s cap. Since she took the helm, the Chamber has worked with business and government partners to create an economic development program, institute a tourism strategy, increase Chamber membership and quadruple the number of attendees at the West Kootenay trade show, which showcases over 100 home based to large scale businesses .
She credits that success to a simple component: effective communication. But getting there has been anything but simple. Creating change in communication takes time.
“Business felt that government wasn’t listening to them, and government and the Chamber weren’t communicating,” says Verigin-Burk. “It became apparent to me right from the get-go that this is where a lot of the barriers were happening, so part of what I did in this job was try to bring down those barriers and get people to communicate on a very different level.”
Big Changes in Castlegar
Castlegar itself is in a transition period. Equidistant from Calgary and Vancouver, it’s a convenient stopping point for travelers between the coast and the prairies. It also makes it a prime location for Fortis BC to relocate their offices there. They’re breaking ground this year, and the move is expected to bring 300 to 400 jobs to the centralized location.
This set the stage for an economic boom for Castlegar.
Verigin-Burk is a born-and-raised Castlegarian, with a career for nearly 27 years in the social services field providing support for children, youth and families. She began her master’s degree in arts and leadership, with her thesis on optimizing operations through communications strategies. When the opportunity arose to work for the Chamber of Commerce she jumped at it.
“It seemed like a great marriage, so I left my whole social service world to come over to this world to embark on this big thesis project and to see if there was anything that I could do that would be of value to enhance communication in this community, which would allow business to grow and prosper,” she says.
Getting to work
Of course, this new influx of people means the demand for services will also go up. The problem was that there was no economic development officer. Leveraging her position as the local Chamber leader, she was able to bring a group together to form the Castlegar and District Economic Development ad hoc Committee; bringing businesses from different sectors regional directors, Mayor, Columbia Basin Trust and city council to talk face-to-face about economic development.
“It was challenging but I think the biggest thing that the city and all the players were seeing was the results – very specific results that were happening from the direct communication,” said Vergin-Burk. “People could see if we had that person who held the information, was consistently driving these meetings, and was communicating with and supporting people who were wanting to open a business or expand their business or were having issues with their business, that there was this key point person.”
That initiative has payed off, as in the next few months an economic development program will begin in Castlegar.
Another place where communication proved successful was in developing a hotel tax. It was something that had been attempted twice over the decade prior to Verigin-Burk’s arrival.
“This was one place where I was definitely able to use communications strategies as well as leadership to drive the initiative,” she says. “I spent a significant amount of time talking to the different hotel accommodators to find out what happened, what the barriers were, why they shut down the idea before, and what the benefits would be of having it now.”
Drawing on her position as the leader of Castlegar's go-to business advocacy organization, she built an advisory group with them and together they created a business plan and a program that fit their needs. It worked. In 2015 the tax went through, and they recently hired a destination marketing coordinator.
“Rather than feeling like we’re in a victim role, worried that our numbers are lessening and wondering how we are going to support ourselves and keep alive, is to turn it around and say ‘this isn’t about us at all – we’re here to serve our membership, so what are we doing to best support them to thrive?’” says Verigin-Burk.
That simple question has become a common one in in board meetings, committee meetings and around the office.
One result from asking that question was in cutting back the number of events that the chamber put on.
“I couldn’t believe how many events we used to do, and of course a lot if it was about fundraising to make sure we survived. That’s the other thing that I really wanted to turn around,” says Verigin-Burk. “If all that we are doing is events, then we have no time to spend with the Chamber members.”
She said they also don’t ask any more. “One of the things I heard from Chamber members when I came on is that we were an ‘ask organization’ – so not only were we experiencing dwindling members, but we’re continually asking them for donations for fundraisers and other events that we’re putting on. We’ve really changed that around, and our events are now all about them”.
One simple way the Chamber changed that perception is by providing the food and beverages at the AGM. “Previously we asked for donations for the food at an event that was meant to honour them – that was confusing to me,” she says. “Now it’s fun, and it’s a challenge, but we actually make the food for them and we have them all come out to our AGM wine and cheese, for us to celebrate them.”
Verigin-Burk acknowledges that communication is hard, and can be scary, especially if you hear things you don’t want to hear. But things only get worse if you don’t have it.
“That’s why exit interviews are so important,” she says. “Some people would rather turn a blind eye and say, ‘I don’t even want to ask them.’ When I came in, I wanted to talk to all of those people who left the chamber because I wanted to know why they left, and what could we do to bring them back? That was a big piece, and of the 100 people we brought on, a large percentage of them were people who had left the chamber previously. When you get somebody back like that, it’s exciting because that means that we’re doing something of value, that they’re seeing a reason to come back.”
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