The County Gin sat down with Wharton Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture Director Ron Sanders about the organization, as well as its efforts to promote commerce in the city in the age of COVID-19.

Q: What is the function of the Wharton Chamber of Commerce & Agriculture?
A: The chamber has two functions, we are a 501c6, which is a non-profit Texas corporation for business advocacy. So, about half of what we do is membership-driven. We connect businesses with customers and customers with businesses. We are the front door, the go-to place. People call us for where to go, where to shop, where can I get this. The other half is we are the visitor bureau for the city. We are under contract by the visitor bureau services to the city. So, we have two main functions.

Q: What is the significance of being a chamber member? What does it entail?
A: First of all, it puts you in a group where you have power by numbers. So, you have visibility and people can find you easily. We refer people. You’re part of a larger community of businesses.
We promote trade. We have networking, we have a large social media presence where we share information about your business. We provide community education. We provide news that’s unique for your business. That membership makes that possible.

Q: What does the future of the chamber look like?
A: We’re affected by COVID-19 like every other non-profit and like every other business, so our sources of funding have shrunk. It is a very difficult time. We’re going to find our way through it. 

Q: Can you touch on how the chamber adapted during COVID-19?
A: One of the main functions we serve is first of all, we stayed open. We have been a conduit for information. We spread the word on anything from any business that could help drive business activity in Wharton. 
Businesses are hurting. So, if businesses are having a sale, we’ll promote it. We’ve been sharing that kind of information throughout our system, so that’s been a big part of what we’ve done. We’ve also designed signs for businesses to promote a healthy shopping experience. We provided signs for face-coverings required. We partnered with others in providing hand sanitizers for businesses. We published a restaurant guide on our website and on social media.
We have a charity, a 501c3, called the Wharton Chamber Small Business Relief Fund and we’re working on some programs to provide grants to help businesses, not just recover, but to pivot. 
Business news is very, very important. We also have provided information on government guidelines, government advice, government announcements, as well as expertise on how to stay open and exist in the COVID-19 experience for small businesses. We’ve been promoting business reviews and will continue to promote business reviews. 
We are also a main source for getting out information on testing and daily reports from the (Wharton County Office of Emergency Management) and we publish that just about every day.

Q: How has COVID-19 affected chamber events that help to promote commerce?
A: We distribute the visitors guide every year and we do bus tours and all that, but a major part of our visitor operation is to get people here through our events. We are marketing the day-trippers to a significant extent from the Houston metropolitan area. They don’t see the open spaces; they don’t see the beauty of rural Texas that we take for granted. It’s a thrill for them to come and get out of the city. So, that is a primary source of our marketing efforts right now — to get them to see Wharton through our events. 
The problem is that our events are devastated right now. Party Under the Bridge will be postponed until we have something to celebrate, which is health. We are discussing our other events and what our options are. We don’t need to be told because we live here and we experience it — people are looking for a way to get out and live and get out of the house, but we don’t want to do anything that’s contrary to public health. 
So, we want to act in concert with the best practices and the best advice we get from the city. We work with the city. We want to do everything to make sure that we don’t have a negative effect on the spread of this virus. Everything is a calculated risk, so we understand that and want to work in concert with others that know more about it than us to make sure we do this safely. 
We’re looking at the rest of our events and we had to postpone our banquet, which has really been difficult. So, it’s going to be awhile before the new normal is even acceptable. We’re struggling, along with everybody else. In the stead of those events, we will continue to promote businesses through social media and through other (social-distancing) measures.


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