Corrections or additions?

This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the July 14, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Direction for Old Chamber

If you want to meet with Michele Siekerka, get in line. Since she

donned the executive director’s mantle of the Mercer County Chamber of

Commerce earlier this year Siekerka has set herself on a whirlwind

tour, making appointments with all the members in addition to

conducting a one-woman outreach campaign to bring in new members.

Busy, but also efficient, she holds herself to the discipline of

responding to every call within 24 hours.

"We need to broaden our base and hit other business areas," explains

Siekerka. "Currently, the chamber is well represented in everything

from big pharma down to mom and pop retail, but we have not adequately

tapped into technology and small pharma." She ponders a moment. "And

we’ve got to make ourselves a better resource for the entrepreneur."

It is scarcely as if the Mercer Chamber has been sitting still these

past few years. In addition to its own magazine, "Mercer Business,"

the chamber’s website, www.mercerchamber.org, now leads to its own

e-zine. The chamber’s Q & A line allows members to chat with other

professionals and find solutions. Its recently formed technology

committee joins other active groups, including the women-in-business

group and transportation group, which is working to make rapid bus

transit up and down the U.S. 1 corridor a reality.

Siekerka is "passionate about the chamber – the way it both builds

business and unites the community." And she is a woman with plans. In

an attempt to boost the organization’s services, she is outlining a

two-pronged business resource center. Part one would be a system of

online information on such topics as loan advice, accounting, legal

seminars, and government regulations. The second part would be a road

show through which such workshops can be taken to individual

businesses.

Mercer Chamber members are now finding an extensive survey crossing

their desks. Siekerka is coupling this with a series of focus groups,

including both member and non-member leaders, to find out what the

county needs to enhance its business life. The data will be analyzed

and the results will be published this fall. "We are going to take our

time with this and get it right," says Siekerka.

While her moves are innovative, Siekerka’s experience with the Mercer

Chamber has been long established. When she first settled in the

county as a young attorney, she joined the Mercer Chamber immediately,

and soon began serving on its committees. For several years she has

sat on the board, and in fact, was chair-elect, set to replace

chairman Tim Losch when the executive director’s slot came open.

"When I first joined," Siekerka recalls, "the Chamber was a necessary

lifeline in getting me clients and in directing me to the expertise

throughout our county." Siekerka grew up in North Bergen and graduated

from Rutgers with a B.A. in political science. Upon obtaining her law

degree from Temple University, she moved to Mercer County and clerked

for Judge Fox and for Judge Smithson. For 12 years, Siekerka was in

private practice, first with Backes & Hill, and then on her own.

She then joined the Automobile Association of America as staff

counsel, spending most of her time on employment law. When she was

promoted to the region’s senior legal counsel, she could tolerate the

commute to Philadelphia. But when AAA asked her to move to Wilmington,

Delaware, she drew the line, and opted for her current post with the

Mercer Chamber.

In l868 50 Mercer area business heads from 13 different villages

united to form a county chamber of commerce. Today, with over 1,000

members, many of these historic divisions still hold. The Mercer

Chamber currently includes divisions in Hamilton, Washington, Ewing,

Hopewell, West Windsor, Hightstown, East Windsor, Lawrence, and

Trenton. Additionally, the Mercer Chamber retains close working ties

with the Princeton Regional Chamber, and with Trenton’s Latino

Chamber, and the Metropolitan Trenton Afro-American Chamber.

In unity, strength is apparent, particularly when it comes to

lobbying. Two years ago the state passed into law a bill that halted

the traditional tax practice of carrying over losses from one year and

deducting them from the following year’s taxable profits. This Net

Operating Loss (NOL) moratorium was bad news for businesses in the

state. So, when Governor McGreevey proposed a two-year extension on

the moratorium, the chambers raised a loud protest.

Siekerka has battled the NOL moratorium long and hard. Yet she sees

the collaboration of chambers as providing more than lobbying clout.

"The towns in New Jersey – even the counties – are small, and growing

very rapidly. Individual consumers and businesses do not hem their

shopping within county lines, so our cooperative marketing efforts

must cross these lines also," she says.

So what does executive director Siekerka do when not racing between

chamber members and trying to energize various committees? She goes to

Disney World with her family. This summer she will grab a quick week

with Niel, her husband of 18 years, who works in the global data

marketing group of Merrill Lynch. Their twelve-and-a-half year old

twins, Brian and Kaitlen, are both black belts in karate who annually

journey to Orlando to compete in the national contests.

Living in Washington Township, the Siekerka family has witnessed the

incredible growth of Robbinsville, New Jersey’s second fastest

expanding town. "It is symptomatic of our whole area," says Siekerka,

"We are a renaissance waiting to happen."

"Our area is already outpacing New York City in growth," says

Siekerka, "but the question is, can we keep up?" She fears that we

lack the proper infrastructure to make our commercial dreams complete.

Every prognosticator predicts that the Mercer area is about to ride a

very wild horse. With advocates like Siekerka at the reins, we may

just make it without a fall.

– Bart Jackson


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