Haines Chamber of Commerce grapples with role of nonprofts

Haines Chamber of Commerce members will vote this week on amended bylaws that would clarify the role of nonprofits. (Bruce Barrett/Flickr Creative Commons)
Haines Chamber of Commerce members will vote this week on amended bylaws that would clarify the role of nonprofits. (Bruce Barrett/Flickr Creative Commons)

Whether nonprofit and for-profit businesses should have an equal voice in the Haines Chamber of Commerce has been debated for a while.

Members will vote this week on amended bylaws that would clarify the role of nonprofits — allowing them to be members and vote, but not to serve on the board.

Chamber rules currently are unclear about who can join, who can be a board member and why, according to Chamber board president Kyle Gray.

“The wording is loose,” Gray said. “So really what we were trying to do is be much more specific about who can join and what types of entities can join. And that’s really what led into the whole nonprofit conversation, which has been controversial in Haines.”

Gray said it’s undeniable that nonprofits contribute to the local economy, but the traditional mission of chambers of commerce is to advance the interests of for-profit businesses.

“Say the Alaska State Senate or somebody from outside of Haines called the Chamber and said ‘hey what does the Chamber think about this?’ Really the view that they’re looking for is the business community.”

The fear, Gray said, is that if nonprofits are given the same power as for-profits, they could dilute commercial interests, which is more of a hypothetical worry, not something that’s played out in reality.

One issue recently factored into the debate: The Chilkat Indian Village applied for special environmental protection for the Chilkat River. That protection could impact Constantine Metal Resources’ mineral exploration and a potential mine at its Palmer Project site north of Haines.

“That’s sort of been the elephant in the room,” Gray said.

The Chamber hasn’t taken a stance on Tier 3 protection for the river because it’s so controversial.

“They’re sort of insinuating — the conservative people are — that the Chamber should be pro-development and pro-business,” Gray said. “And they don’t always see the nonprofit sector of Haines having that mentality — that development is something we should be pursuing at all times.”

How do you find a compromise between those who think nonprofits shouldn’t have a role in the Chamber at all and those who think nonprofits and for-profits should be completely equal? Gray thinks they’ve found an answer to that in the proposed bylaws.

The new bylaws would divide members into three different classes: for-profits count as primary members, non-profits are community members, and people not representing a business are supporting members. All classes are allowed to vote in Chamber elections. But only primary members – that’s the for-profit representatives – are allowed to serve on the Chamber board of directors.

“We felt that that is the compromise,” Gray said.

“Excluding us does not make sense,” said Melissa Aronson, president of the nonprofit Haines Friends of Recycling. Speaking for herself and not her organization, Aronson hopes the bylaws are voted down.

Chamber board member Thom Ely agreed.

Like the other eight board members, Ely represents a for-profit business, but he thinks nonprofits are such an important part of Haines, the Chamber shouldn’t limit their voice.

“I think our community should be inclusive, including our business community,” Ely said. “And nonprofits are businesses, they’re just a different business structure. And they contribute millions of dollars to our economy. And I think they should be represented in the Chamber just like any business.”

But most of the current board members were in favor of putting some restriction on nonprofits’ role in the Chamber.

“The Chamber of Commerce is fundamentally made up of and designed for for-profit businesses,” board  member Scott Sundberg said.

Because of that, Sundberg thinks Chamber decisions should be up to for-profit representatives.

Even though the bylaws diminish the role of nonprofits, Gray thinks it’s the best solution considering the polarized opinions.

“I mean, we think that it is fair for nonprofits to be in the Chamber and have voting rights. And we want their voice to be heard, we want to be inclusive,” Gray said. “But we also don’t want to lose sight of what our overall mission as a chamber of commerce is. And we don’t want this argument to go on forever. We want to put an end to it.”

The debate may be put to an end when members vote at the special meeting 6 p.m. Thursday in the Aspen Hotel conference room.

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