Ryan Stanton, rstanton@ExplorerNews.com
Dec. 7, 2005 - The last time anyone proposed merging the two chambers of commerce on Tucson's north side, it was like Custer's Last Stand, according to some who were there for those discussions.
Lacking consensus, officials from both the Marana Chamber of Commerce and the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce decided to drop the idea of pursuing a merger.
Several years later, both organizations have grown and prospered despite offering similar services to businesses in overlapping areas. While some businesses belong to one group or the other, many are paying hundreds of dollars in annual fees for membership in both chambers.
The inevitable result of having two similarly-focused groups operating on the same turf may be coming into play as the Marana Chamber continues to grow. Words exchanged between the two chambers recently indicate there may be a difference of opinion about who represents Marana businesses and to what extent.
NPCCC's service area covers northern Pima County, which includes Marana, though Ed Stolmaker, executive director of the Marana Chamber, would prefer the competing body not claim to represent his home turf.
Stolmaker chided NPCCC's executive director, Jerry Bustamante, in a recent letter sent to the NPCCC Board, in which he said Bustamante overstepped his bounds when talking about Marana at a Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities meeting Oct. 17.
"It is clear to me that I need to formally address the claim that the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce (NPCCC) represents the town of Marana and its business community in order to avoid similar situations in the future," Stolmaker wrote.
The letter was in response to a discussion about low voter turnout in area municipalities, during which Bustamante mentioned a possible referendum facing Marana. Stolmaker criticized Bustamante, saying his remarks put him in an "awkward" position because he was there representing Marana.
Bustamante said the discussion was not specific to Marana, though he shouldn't be restricted from talking about the town if he wants to. In any case, he hopes the two chambers can resolve their differences.
"You have two chambers of commerce that are excellent business organizations and we both happen to be organizations that are growing, and with growth comes issues," Bustamante said. "This is a simple issue that we will resolve."
However, the incident was not the first of its kind, said Stolmaker, who e-mailed his letter to more than three dozen Marana business leaders and town officials Oct. 31. He declined to discuss his reasons for the letter when contacted by the EXPLORER, saying he doesn't think the general public should know about "internal" issues between the two chambers.
"I don't want to go there because of things that have happened," he said. "It's just going to feed the fire if I say anything."
In a response to Stolmaker's letter, Bustamante and Jeff Jones, chairman of the NPCCC Board, wrote that they thought Stolmaker misunderstood the situation. They did not apologize for anything said at the meeting and, instead, held their ground that NPCCC has a right to represent its members in Marana.
"The NPCCC has never made any claims of representing the Town of Marana or being the sole voice of business in Marana," their Nov. 16 response states. "The NPCCC represents its members, all 600 who reside throughout Tucson's Northwest, which includes Marana."
Stolmaker's remarks serve as a reminder that there needs to be more dialogue between the chambers, the letter further states, mentioning that Marana Chamber leaders regularly turn down invitations to attend NPCCC's governmental affairs meetings.
"We think it was a misunderstanding," Jones said of Stolmaker's reaction. "We're here for the betterment of the entire business community in northern Pima County and we will continue to seek to fulfill that objective."
So who represents Marana?
Stolmaker said the Marana Chamber represents about 350 members, about half of which are Marana businesses. The other half are spread throughout the greater Tucson area, many of them in other parts of northern Pima County and Oro Valley.
NPCCC has more than 600 members, about 15 percent in Marana and 25 percent in Oro Valley. Jones said the chamber is hoping to reach 150 new members by September and remains committed to serving as an advocate for businesses north of River Road, which includes Marana.
"We certainly owe it to our members that have businesses in Marana to be their voice and their advocate," Jones said. "I'm not saying we are the sole or official voice of Marana businesses, but we are going to continue to be active in Marana in representing our Marana members and the general business interests in terms of what goes on in Marana."
Because both chambers serve overlapping areas and offer similar services, deciding which chamber to join may not be an easy task for a business. Some Marana businesses are members of NPCCC and some Oro Valley businesses are members of the Marana Chamber, while many have dual memberships in both.
"For someone to be in Oro Valley and to join the Marana Chamber, the reason they want to do that is because they want to get business from Marana," Stolmaker said. "If I did work in SaddleBrooke or Catalina, I'd join the Northern Pima County Chamber, I wouldn't join the Marana Chamber."
Why a business belongs to any particular chamber is an individual choice, Jones said. But if a chamber can provide a value to a business, that business should belong to that chamber, he said.
Paul Bigelow, managing partner of the new Texas Roadhouse restaurant in Marana, said he joined both chambers not knowing which one would most benefit him. Naturally, he joined the Marana Chamber because of location, but it was Bustamante who sold him on NPCCC as a way of reaching a larger audience, he said.
"When I met with Jerry, he explained to me that the Northern Pima County Chamber actually covered a lot of Marana and that was probably the selling point on it for me," Bigelow said. "Whether that's true or not, I honestly just haven't had time to dive into it all. But he really sold me on the fact that the Northern Pima County Chamber does just as much in Marana as the Marana Chamber."
Bigelow said he's gotten to know Stolmaker on a first-name basis and he thinks the Marana Chamber represents his business well, though he hasn't seen Bustamante since Texas Roadhouse opened in May.
"I'm just a big supporter of the Marana Chamber," Bigelow said. "Ed has got a really good plan, and the best interests of Marana are definitely in his heart."
Paul Neill, store manager of the new Sportsman's Warehouse in Marana, said he joined both chambers when he opened his sporting goods store in October because each offered different advertising avenues. Like Bigelow, he prefers the services and regular updates he receives from the Marana Chamber, which he doesn't receive as much from NPCCC.
"I get many more e-mails and mailings from (the Marana Chamber) than I do from the larger chamber, but of course it's all specific to the town of Marana," Neill said. "I feel they're very on top of it in terms of the resources they provide."
Differences between the chambers
The Marana Chamber has supported Marana area businesses since 1987, Stolmaker said, adding that its members recognize it as the official chamber of Marana.
"We're tied into Marana," he said. "We represent Marana and we're very proud to be the Marana Chamber of Commerce."
NPCCC was founded in 1992 as the Oro Valley Chamber of Commerce but changed its name in 1997 to encompass a broader area. The chamber is still largely involved in Oro Valley affairs, though it now markets itself to a larger audience.
"Our governmental affairs are broader in scope in that we're not just focused on Marana issues," Jones said. "We focus on issues that are outside Marana that could have an effect on businesses."
Because a significant portion of the Marana Chamber's budget comes from the town of Marana - about $40,000 annually - Jones said it's difficult for the Marana Chamber to be an objective voice on town issues.
"Since we don't have that issue with any political entity - Marana, Oro Valley or the county - we feel we can be a truer advocate for business," he said.
NPCCC does have a contract with Oro Valley to provide services for people interested in relocating to the town, though Jones said funds from that agreement account for less than 5 percent of the chamber's budget.
Richard Underwood, chairman of Canyon Community Bank, said NPCCC has a big sway in town politics. The chamber recently partnered with the Southern Arizona Homebuilders Association to influence Oro Valley voters to approve the General Plan.
"They have political clout, they influence appointments and they have influence on personnel issues at the town level," Underwood said. "I think they're a moderating influence."
Both chambers serve their members as a liaison between local, county and state government, keeping up-to-date on legislation that might affect businesses. Member-to-member discounts are added bonuses to joining the chambers, though visibility of a company's name in annual membership directories is another incentive.
Underwood, who owns AAA Landscape in Tucson, said he benefits as a member of both local chambers, though his loyalties may fall closer to NPCCC, of which he is a founding member and past president.
"I need to be in both places and they both serve a real need in the community," he said. "No one chamber can speak for all people."
Underwood also belongs to the larger Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which markets itself to Northwest businesses and competes with the other chambers for membership.
The Tucson Chamber represents about 2,000 businesses in the metropolitan area, including several in the Northwest. One of its biggest supporters is the Hilton El Conquistador in Oro Valley, which is also a prominent NPCCC member.
"We look at issues from a metropolitan area rather than any geographic boundaries and we advocate for businesses in all levels of government," said Jack Camper, president of the Tucson Chamber.
Stolmaker said all three chambers are driven by membership and his stance is that quantity isn't always quality, which is why the Marana Chamber focuses on its own community while the others market themselves to a broader area.
"Call Jack Camper and he'll tell you he represents all of Pima County and there shouldn't be any other chambers," Stolmaker said.
Are two heads better than one?
While talks of a merger may seem like a distant memory, both the Marana Chamber and NPCCC joined forces with the region's chambers of commerce last month to form the Southern Arizona Chamber Alliance.
Leaders of both chambers say they don't anticipate any conflicts and are looking forward to better understanding and working with each other.
"It really combines the clout of all the chambers together to make a very powerful force at the state legislative level," Jones said.
"The Southern Arizona Chamber Alliance gives us a way to provide information to our members about local and state issues that they probably wouldn't have," Stolmaker said.
Camper spearheaded the effort to form the alliance, which he said will boast close to 5,000 members when all chambers join.
He said he's stayed out of the turf issues north of Tucson, but he's not blind to the dynamic taking place there.
Officials from both NPCCC and the Marana Chamber said they wouldn't be in favor of a merger today, because they see a need for both chambers to coexist, and they think that can happen peacefully.
"I think each community has its own separate needs and those needs can be met with the individual chambers," Stolmaker said.
Meanwhile, some local business owners say they'd prefer one chamber representing the whole area rather than deal with separate entities.
"I would probably say that it's always better to deal with just one entity," said Bigelow, of Texas Roadhouse.
"They both serve pretty much the same functions and service. I personally think it would be a smart move to combine the two," said Neill, of Sportsman's Warehouse.
Camper noted that if Marana has its own chamber within NPCCC's jurisdiction, there also could be a separate Oro Valley chamber there.
"As they continue to annex and grow, there may very well be business people out there -when they get a strong enough nucleus of businesses - that they would say, 'We need our own chamber of commerce,'" Camper said.
Underwood, of AAA Landscape, said the University of Arizona's football team has a better chance of going to the Rose Bowl than the two chambers have of merging.
As Tucson is to Phoenix, he said, Oro Valley is to Marana, and mixing the two is like mixing oil with water.
"Marana is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation and there's probably no one down there in favor of blending the two chambers now," he said. "I see a synergy when they can work together."