Economic Development

Shenango Valley Chamber Plans New Model, Vision

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HERMITAGE, Pa. – By most measures, the past year has been a successful one for the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, executive director Robert McCracken said at its annual dinner Thursday night.

It’s hosted more events, seen membership grow and, perhaps most important, is seeing economic recovery take visible hold in Mercer and Lawrence counties.

“It’s a much more positive outlook than it would have been a few years ago. Consumers are optimistic. Manufacturers are optimistic,” he said. “There are things that we do need to be concerned about on a national and global basis, such as the 2016 election and what it means to the economy. There are a lot of possibilities, but also a lot of challenges ahead.”

The education aspect of the chamber’s mission has also been well received, McCracken reported. Earlier this year, 1,000 tenth-grade students met with 30 chamber members to discuss career opportunities. Employer education has also played a large role for the organization over the past year, with seminar topics that ranged from constantly shifting labor laws to updates on the oil and gas industry.

Chamber President Ron McCall noted that membership increased over the past year.

“There’s an ebb and flow. You lose members, you gain members and you try to stay ahead. That’s where we’ve been,” he said. “I believe that if we can create a new model with a new vision, that can change everything. Who doesn’t want to be part of organization that’s trying to pull a whole region together?”

Also started last year was the Shenango Valley Chamber’s 40 Under 40 program, McCracken said.

“We recognize up-and-coming leaders for what they’ve contribute to this area. It’s important to recognize them because that’s where the talent is going to come from and lead us into the future,” he said.

Since he took his position a year ago, McCall and the chamber have worked on strengthening the organization. The plan, he said, focuses on emphasizing collaboration on several fronts between the two counties.

“We are at a crossroads now,” he began. “Our executives plan to build on the foundation and create a new model and vision for the chamber for 2016 and beyond. A new model for collaboration between members, chambers and economic development agencies are necessary if we’re going to effectively compete for new business and economic prosperity for our region.”

One of the biggest points of the plan, which will be presented in full in the coming weeks, McCall said, is providing a single voice for businesses in Lawrence and Mercer counties.

“Being in the western part of the state, we’re often overlooked by Harrisburg when it comes to legislation or funding,” he explained. “It seems like a no-brainer that two counties would get together to speak with one voice. If something’s necessary 15 miles away from me in Lawrence County, why can’t I speak on their behalf if it’s for the benefit of our region?”

Lew Kachulis, president of Gilbert’s Risk Solutions and Synergy Insurance Co., was honored as the Shenango Valley Chamber Person of the Year. Kachulis, whose term as president of the Penn-Northwest Development Corp. Board of Directors ended last week, also serves on the board of Buhl Park, the Buhl Community Recreation Center and the Community Foundation of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio.

“I truly believe that it’s our responsibility to give back. I’ve been very fortunate in my life to receive and now it’s the time to give it back,” he said.

During his acceptance speech, Kachulis told how Gilbert’s started Synergy, a workers’ compensation insurance agency. In 2005 and 2006, when the company was being organized, Kachulis and others at Gilbert’s raised $4.2 million from local sources to start Synergy.

“The capital came right from this community. At the time, we made sure that we didn’t go to venture capitalists or private equity groups,” he related. “Typically when you take that route, you sell your company in five to seven years. We wanted to build a long-term company with a different set of values and a different service model for this area.”

Kachulis was chosen because he’s an example of what someone in the Shenango Valley business community can be, McCracken said.

“It’s about holding Lew up as an example to others. He brings the leadership we need for accomplishments to take place. With that kind of leadership, the Shenango Valley can only continue to grow,” he said. “You can’t measure that service, but you can certainly recognize it.”

Pictured, from left, are Robert McCracken, executive director of the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce, Lew Kachulis, the chamber’s Person of the Year, and chamber board of directors President Ron McCall.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.