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Online chat with Brien Poffenberger

July 01, 2007

On Tuesday, June 26, at 2 p.m. The Herald-Mail hosted a live online chat Brien Poffenberger, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce. What follows is an edited transcript of that chat.

At this time, no other chats are scheduled, but you can make a suggestion by e-mailing it to onlinechat@herald-mail.com.

Audio of an earlier interview with Poffenberger can be heard by going to www.antpod.com, clicking on "Bob's Pod" and then on "Powerbuy."

Moderator: You have been leader of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce for almost three years now. How has the organization changed in that time?

Poffenberger: The Chamber has changed in two ways, really. Externally, to the customer, we are now more focused on advocacy, that is - representing the voice of the Washington County business community in the media and especially with government officials. The second major change is how the organization runs in the "back office," these are the internal processes that enable us to fulfill our mission. We have made better use of technology, communication tools and staff resources.

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Moderator: In your time at the Chamber, has the group accomplished anything that makes you especially proud, or that has changed the community for the better?

Poffenberger: Everything we do is a work in progress. Our goal is to improve the way we serve our members, to make Washington County a better place to work and live and to be the voice of business.

With all of these, we focus on continuous improvement and so it is hard to pick out individual points on the continuum, to answer your question.

Having said that, together with several community partners, we launched a lobbying effort in Annapolis that has raised the profile of the needs in Washington County. We have also created specific benefits, such as the electricity buying co-op, that put money back in people's pockets. Internally, to support much of what we do, we have greatly improved the way we communicate. For example, we publish Washington County's only business focused publication, our "Connect" newsletter. Our newsletter is a good example of how we leverage the resources that other business partners bring to the table.

Moderator: If I'm the owner of a small business, what's the best reason for me to join the Chamber?

Poffenberger: To strengthen your business. And, of course, that means different things to different businesses. For some, the greatest value is in the networking opportunities - and we do some 90 events per year. For others, it's the voice we give them with government leaders. As a Chamber member, you are one phone call away from City Hall, county government and from the governor's office. For others, the value is the sense of community and being "in the loop" about things going on in Washington County. Chamber membership sends a clear message to your customers. It is the local version of the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Moderator: Since you have been the chamber's president, the way the group has interacted with local elected leaders has changed somewhat - less reverential, it seems. Was that your idea and did this new way of dealing with elected officials have anything to do with the fact that no members of the county's General Assembly delegation attended this year's post-legislative breakfast?

Poffenberger: We think of our elected leaders as partners. We all have a common goal and that is to make good things happen in Washington County. Sometimes we disagree on the specifics, but the goal is the same. The best example of that has been our lobbying effort in Annapolis over the last two years.

The lobbying coalition partners have picked issues that benefit stakeholders throughout the community and then we have worked closely with the delegation to get results. As for the attendance at the post-legislative forum, we can blame that on miscommunications, and we are all committed to making sure that doesn't happen again.

Moderator: While we're on the topic of legislators and legislation, in 1999, the General Assembly deregulated electric power in Maryland on the premise that it would bring more competition and lower prices. It didn't work out that way, but the Chamber has come up with a plan to ease some of that pain. Can you explain a bit about the Chamber's power-buying cooperative?

Poffenberger: You're right. Deregulation did not bring competition and lower prices, and many small and medium-sized businesses have a hard time getting the attention of the energy suppliers who are selling in Maryland. To help solve that problem, the Chamber put together an electricity buying co-op. We aggregate the demand of many businesses, go out to the marketplace and negotiate terms based on a bulk purchase. It's a great way for businesses to manage what has turned out to be a confusing and potentially costly change in the way they buy electricity.

Moderator: Could the same thing be done for residential customers?

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