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
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
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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