From rivalry to success story, GC Chamber of Commerce celebrates merger of Batavia and Le Roy 50 years ago
Monroe Davidson, manufacturer of woolen shirts and jackets under the label of Melton Shirts, began on Liberty Street, Genesee Community College moved to a brand new campus on College Road northeast of the city, and the P. W. Minor Company moved its shoe-making business from Jefferson Avenue to the Industrial Park off Pearl Street.
All of those events happened in 1972, also the year that the Genesee County Chamber of Commerce was established. Chamber folks have been celebrating all year long, culminating with a 50th anniversary gala Saturday evening at The Red Osier Landmark Restaurant in Stafford.
Hosted by Chamber staff Tom Turnbull, interim president, and Kelly Bermingham, director of Member Relations and Events, the gala drew 100 local business, municipal, and community members for a year-end celebration.
John Dwyer was the first Chamber president, and he shared a story of how the rivalry between Batavia and Le Roy began in 1947. Dwyer was playing with the Blue Devils, and one particular game pitted the two foes, ending in a questionable touchdown called by the referee. The crowd had veiled the quarterback's catch as people encroached the endzone with wild enthusiasm. Fights broke out, and it was the epitome of mayhem amongst both teams -- and municipalities -- he said.
As a leader of the Batavia Area Chamber two dozen years later, Dwyer recalled having driven past that game location on the way to a meeting at Le Roy Country Club. Despite the odds of merging, Dwyer was charged with making it happen, though he hadn't forgotten his memories of that game and ensuing discord.
Many others before him had failed already, but apparently, enough people felt that it was the right thing to do.
"And some people understood that we had to make some changes here ... the county level is the one place where you have political input, you can be listened to. But we needed a plan because we were in desperate need of something, some representation," he said, noting what the sentiment was at the time. "We have to speak with one voice. We have a need for professional help. And the first step, of course, would have been a County Chamber of Commerce, where the businesses had a voice, and tourism, and a political voice and input as the voice of business."
A historic vote was taken that changed the course of each smaller entity, he said. The rivalry would soon give way to cooperation.
"So anyway, it all finally came together and the night was a snowy night ... I had no idea how this was going to work out. But the editor of the Le Roy paper, he already said he had written an editorial suggesting that this was the right path to take. And he was affirmative about my actions and my intentions," Dwyer said. "And so, as it worked out, on a snowy night at the Le Roy Country Club, the vote was yea. And we ended up at that point with the County Chamber of Commerce."
Le Roy and Batavia merged, also folding in the remaining towns and villages for a countywide Chamber of Commerce.
The 70s also signaled another path for the city, as it was swept up in urban renewal funding that tore down the heart and soul of downtown. Genesee Country Mall was built, many businesses have come and gone, visions for the city have adjusted to current times, and the Chamber’s role has not only adapted, but expanded, to meet those needs over the years, Bermingham said.
“When I started I was 29 years old, I was young and naive in everything back in 1995. That's when I started. As everyone knows, there was no social media, there was no internet, there was nothing like that. So everything was face-to-face, we had a lot of committee meetings, and we did things … it was more face-to-face, snail mail, things like that. So going from 1995 to 2022, as I look back and I'm like, wow, you know, everything now is social media and Internet. So that's been a huge, huge change,” she said to The Batavian. “I’ve been through … six bosses, so to speak, you know, that I've gone through and right now, waiting to get another one. Right. So let it change. And I will admit, I'm not good at it. But I've learned that usually, on the other side, it's a good thing.”
She admitted to being a little more old-fashioned in the face of texts flying back and forth to communicate. Bermingham would rather pick up the phone and talk to someone, she said. But those are mere details compared to the services offered by the agency, she said, beginning with health insurance and cell phone plans 30 years ago.
As those offerings eroded due to higher technology and other providers, the Chamber took on a higher level of service: providing whatever was needed. Whether that was to get up to speed with a business website, connect to others in the area, or better promote a merchant, the Chamber rises to the challenge, she said.
“I think we really have expanded, I think that we have become the place to go for businesses. We're not your grandfather's chamber, and we're there to do whatever you need. If you have an HR issue, boom. You don't know people, we'll connect you. That's why our promote, support and connect tagline has done so well, because you join, and remember, then we can get you with other team members to support you in any way we possibly can. One of my past co-workers would always say we bend over backward, and we really do. We'll do anything. We'll try to find the answer and we'll try to connect you any way we can.”
Former and now Interim President Tom Turnbull began in 2013, left in March 2021, and returned temporarily as another candidate is chosen. No matter whether the Chamber deals with big or small businesses, he recognizes the biggest one in Genesee County is agriculture. Those farms that people drive by every day are sources for not only ag products, but also for various administrative and food chain jobs besides the obvious ones of tending to the land and livestock, he said.
“Our whole mission is to promote and support business,” he said. “We take a stance on local business; there’s strength in numbers. You can see it happening, it’s on an upswing. Things are happening; it’s headed in the right direction.”
While the national retail market has changed with the prevalence of websites and social media, Turnbull sees success locally of niche retailers, those merchants that are selling products and services that don’t exist quite the same elsewhere. And the more people around, the more they are apt to shop locally, he said.
“Getting those apartments downtown is a good thing,” he said. “When you have more people, you have a need for more services.”
Connecting the dots is important when assessing the business scene, he said. For example, building a Main Street theater means more than just providing entertainment. During rehearsals, actors are downtown, parents are downtown waiting to pick up their children, and all of them create a more dynamic scene, and one in need of places to eat, drink and shop, he said.
The presence of online sites prompted the addition of a related position to take care of e-newsletters, social media posts and related efforts to promote businesses. That job was “a great addition,” Turnbull said. He credits Dwyer — former owner of the famed Thomas & Dwyer shoe store downtown — for being “very visionary” to see the need of a cohesive Chamber that embraced both the Batavia and Le Roy branches.
As for Turnbull’s own record, he is especially proud of three accomplishments during his time: reviving the home show (a good, old-fashioned dose of putting people right in front of businesses); moving to Park Road with offices and space for tourism and a Visitors Center; and working hard during the pandemic to shore up losses felt by merchants, so that they could shift to sell more take-out meals, and understand and navigate pandemic protocols to keep making revenue.
He doesn’t see the Chamber’s role changing much; just the way in which staff does it.
“Our role is to support and promote local business in any way we can,” he said. “As long as we continue to support business, it won’t matter the way we do it.”
Top Photo: Chamber Committee President Mickey Hyde, left, with Chamber Interim President Tom Turnbull, raise a glass and toast 50 years of the agency's existence Saturday evening during the Chamber's gala at Red Osier in Stafford; Founding member John Dwyer shares some thoughts and memories about when the Chamber of Commerce was established countywide; Chamber member and supporter Craig Yunker, left, Director of Member Relations and Events Kelly Bermingham, and John Dwyer enjoy some time on the patio of Red Osier during the Chamber's 50th gala; former Chamber webmaster and online manager Steven Falitico -- who Interim President Tom Turnbull credits for having taken the position to "another level," joins other guests at the buffet during the gala Saturday; a book for guests to leave comments for the occasion includes all sorts of praise for the Chamber's success; Tom Turnbull shows off the fancy cake created by Buttercrumbs Bakery in Corfu; and live music entertained attendees during the evening. Photos by Howard Owens.