DELMAR — The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce began as a small group of business owners at the Four Corners in Delmar, Bethlehem’s only shopping district in 1957. At the time, the organization went by the name The Delmar Businessmen’s Association and was focused on the beautification of the area through the addition of benches and flora, sponsoring sidewalk sales and encouraging businesses to locate there.
According to Jennifer Kilcoyne, the chamber’s president, early member businesses included a five-and-dime store, a movie theater, a butcher, a bakery, a barber shop, a roller skating rink and two bowling alleys.
Sixty years later, the chamber boasts more than 500 business and nonprofit members in the town’s seven hamlets and beyond. It also forges and fosters relationships with community members and other community institutions, such as the Bethlehem Central School District.
“We can’t continue to represent our businesses if we don’t have the support of the community,” said Kilcoyne. She said that the work the chamber does with the school district is just a small part of their efforts to support workforce development in the town.
“The Bethlehem Chamber does a wonderful job of creating a bridge between businesses and the community,” said Bethlehem Central School District Superintendent Jody Monroe. “That extends to our students here who have benefited from internship and job shadow opportunities in a wide array of fields. Many of these young people have been able to gain workplace experience, and explore first hand careers they have an interest in. It is community partnership we hope continues and grows.”
“The Bethlehem Chamber is much more than a business organization,” said Supervisor John Clarkson. “It’s a civic group that helps our town in countless ways. The Chamber has always been there to support community events such as our holiday parades and First Night. As the town’s primary business organization, they’re involved in every economic development activity that takes place and we appreciate their leadership and help in supporting and strengthening Bethlehem businesses.“
“We offer support for businesses: business assistance, connection to funding, marketing opportunities, opportunities to network so that they can grow their business,” said Kilcoyne. “So, on that level, we’re kind of focused on helping to assist businesses and nonprofits with their day-to-day activities and connections in order for them to grow.”
According to Kilcoyne, the chamber essentially connects businesses with each other and with the support systems that will help them to succeed. For more than 25 years, it has offered health and dental insurance plans, of which, she said, a good percentage of membership takes advantage. The Chamber also sponsors a number of community events aimed at encouraging shoppers to stay local, such as restaurant week, Small Business Saturday and the Shop Bethlehem gift card, which is available year-round.
In addition, they put out an annual business guide and organize frequent opportunities to for business owners to meet each other and promote their business, through Business For Breakfast events, Networking Mixers, Annual Awards Dinner in the spring and Annual Golf Outing in the fall. Several times a year, these events are in conjunction with other area chambers, giving businesses even greater exposure.
“You get to know somebody if you’re going to meetings and events at least once a month and you build a rapport,” Kilcoyne said, “which then turns into referrals. If you know someone and know a little bit about them and about their business, you’re more inclined to refer them. People tend to do business with people they know. And it allows businesses to make connections that they might not on a customer business level.”
The Chamber represents local businesses in town government, as well, holding seats on committees such as the Delaware Avenue Improvement Group.
“The Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce always has our back and they go out of their way to show us they are there to support us,” said Liam Slattery, co-owner of O’Slattery’s on Delaware Ave. “It has been a real comfort knowing they are always there as such a reliable resource.”
“For the past 60 years, the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce has been an advocate for Bethlehem businesses and has created a positive business environment for both small and large businesses in town,” said Bethlehem’s Director of Economic Development and Planning Rob Leslie. “The Chamber is an excellent resource for the town to advance economic development. The Chamber provides excellent outreach to promote the economic development successes within the town, as well as gauges the business community’s thoughts and perspectives on projects.”
“We’ve started on the road of being more than just a business association to being more of a community partner and more of a community organization,” said Kilcoyne. “We’ve taken steps over the last seven years to ensure that with the programs we’ve developed and that’s going to be our continued focus moving forward.”