The MidJersey Chamber of Commerce claims heritage as the oldest chamber of commerce in the state, with roots going back to the Board of Trade of the City of Trenton, established in 1868 by John Roebling. But in the last year, it has let most of its staff go, stopped holding events, and stopped publication of its monthly magazine.
The MidJersey Chamber has also been in negotiations with the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce to merge the two organizations. The Princeton Regional Chamber has advertised a “historic announcement” to be made on Thursday, March 28.
MidJersey Chamber board chair Jeannine Cimino said that last year the board of directors held a retreat and decided to investigate strategic alliances. “We’ve been talking to the Princeton Chamber about merging,” Cimino said. “There’s been a call for that in the community for the past 32 years. There are duplicate events and duplicate sponsorships for companies. It’s kind of head-scratching why it couldn’t have gotten done for the past 32 years. Maybe it’s egos.”
Cimino said the chamber has curtailed its activities as talks went on. The last issue of the organization’s glossy magazine was published in December, 2017. “The magazine was a loss leader for us,” she said. “We weren’t making money on it to continue to sustain the staff to run the magazine as well as print the magazine. We as a board made the decision to put the magazine on hold, and we didn’t know if we were going to bring it back in a different version.”
Cimino said some staffers were let go when the magazine stopped publishing, but that some marketing staff and consultants were still on the payroll.
The MidJersey chamber has had high leadership turnover lately, with three CEOs in the last two years. In 2017 prominent Mercer County politician Robert Prunetti left the chamber over differences with the group’s 50-member board of directors and was replaced by Thomas Curtin, former publisher of NJ Biz. Curtin’s tenure was short lived, and after less than a year he moved to New York to become publisher of Crain’s New York Business. In June, 2018, Michael Cano of Cano Wealth Strategies was named interim CEO.
Members of the board and former employees said the organization had run out of money under declining revenues and mounting expenses related to the magazine and the organization’s spacious Riverside Plaza headquarters on the Trenton Waterfront. The organization also lost one of its major revenue generating events in 2017 when Mercer County decided to hold its State of the County address at the McDade Administration Building in Trenton, free to the public, instead of at a well-attended event at the Hyatt ballroom where the MidJersey Chamber of Commerce would charge $45 a ticket. Its other major events were the annual leadership awards gala and a golf classic, which it held as late as the summer of 2018. The chamber also hosted “state of the township” events for East Windsor, Ewing, Lawrence, Robbinsville, and Hamilton.
Cimino denied that there were financial difficulties. “We had no issues,” Cimino said. “We have been a strong, viable chamber for 150 years.”
Prunetti, who was CEO from 2010 through 2017, said he was as “bewildered as anyone else” that the MidJersey chamber had halted its activities. He said the chamber had been “doing pretty good” when he left amid a disagreement with the board of directors. (He said he wanted the chamber to do more economic development and nonprofit work.)
“There were no inherent difficulties that I knew of,” he said. “The only real issue was the publication of the magazine. There was always a debate as to whether or not we should have continued doing that.” But he noted that it would have been easy enough to just stop publishing the magazine to save money, or to publish it digitally, or publish it less often than every month.
The Princeton Regional Chamber and the MidJersey chamber have a long history of competition. Before 2012 the MidJersey Chamber was called the Mercer Regional Chamber and did most of its business in Trenton and the southern part of the county, while the Princeton Chamber focused on the northern part of the county.
In 2012 the Mercer Chamber changed its name to MidJersey and tried to expand its sphere of influence. The Princeton Chamber followed suit by adding “Regional” to its name.
The two chambers continued to compete with each other. “We’re all in the same area,” Cimino said. “There’s only so many business type events that could be done. How many young professional groups are there? How many business groups are there? How many county addresses are we going to have for the same group of people? We have the same member base for the most part.”
Prunetti said there was a major push to unite the two groups when he was in charge. “I think there were an awful lot of people who felt they had to spend for both chambers,” Prunetti said. “There was a lot of duplication.” He said the idea failed to get enough support on either board of directors to finalize the deal.
“We were ‘Mercer’ and sometimes when you try to be more than you are, you lose sight of those things,” Cimino said. “Our home is Mercer and our customers are in Mercer, and I think we’re trying to get back to basics.”
“We may have some exciting stuff to talk about soon,” Cimino said.