With updated programs and imaginative approaches, the Freeport Chamber of Commerce is not only supporting its members through recovery from the pandemic, but also actively promoting connection between Freeport’s northern and southern regions.
Businesses in the northern sector, especially above Sunrise Highway, tend not to interact with businesses to the south. “The chamber becomes mostly south Freeport,” said Ben Jackson, proprietor for 40 years of Ben’s General Contracting Corporation, and current chamber president. “So we try to get businesses – and we have been getting businesses – from north Freeport to join us, and make us a more diverse chamber.”
In recent months, Jackson has seen Asian-owned MegaWash on Broadway join the organization, as well as Hispanic-owned Midway Deli 1 on West Merrick Rd. Also enhancing diversity, the Caribbean Island Restaurant and Bar and Puerto Plata Seafood on the Water opened during August, both on the Nautical Mile.
“It’s very, very refreshing,” Jackson said.
When people call the chamber, the first voice they hear will likely be that of Monica Bennett, the chamber secretary. Bennett not only provides information about resources and contacts, but continually articulates the chamber’s purpose.
“It’s all about being of service,” said Bennett. “We really emphasize community involvement. Right now, more than ever, with COVID, it’s about collaboration.”
One example of service was the Chamber of Commerce’s participation in Bridging the Gap, an event sponsored by the Community Affairs Division of the Freeport Police Department on August 21.
“We helped coordinate the Bridging the Gap event,” Jackson said. “We supplied all the free food, cooked the hot dogs and hamburgers – it was a lot of work, but it went very well.”
The chamber has turned its attention toward youth, too.
“It was Jennifer’s idea,” said Jackson, referring to his wife, Jennifer Jerome, who is one of the chamber’s directors. “We’re bringing in youth from Freeport to meet with chamber members. We want to familiarize them with local business owners, with the idea of them becoming entrepreneurial and starting a business one day.”
The chamber has also started an associate membership, open to village residents who may not own a business, but wish to support the organization. Associates meet local business owners and dignitaries at the luncheons.
“Our last luncheon was with a good friend of mine, David Montgomery,” said Jackson. He spoke about what to do when you retire, how to collect your Social Security to the best advantage, and so on.”
The advantages offered by chamber membership are many. “We have a great connection with all the local officials,” said Jackson. “They inform us and we put it out to our membership about any funding available, any assistance available in many different forms, a lot of stuff people wouldn’t necessarily find on their own.”
Bennett explained how she facilitates connections among the chamber members.
“We use Constant Contact, an email marketing service,” Bennett said. “I always send anything that’s going on in the organization immediately. If members want to promote something, I send it out.” A newsletter appears once a month on freeportchamberofcommerce.org.
“With COVID,” said Bennett, “the chamber has been a great resource to help members discover funding, find PCR kits, and just navigate the difficulties. Our doors are always open.”
One example of a business in northern Freeport that has benefited from membership is Allstate on W. Sunrise Highway, which opened in mid-2019. Proprietor Mike Sadaati and his wife, Maryam, are engineers who decided that matching people and businesses with the right insurance plan was a more direct way to help others.
Then the pandemic shut their agency down.
"Monica [Bennett] was great," Sadaati said, "because she was talking to us, sending us emails, showing us how to open all the doors." The federal Paycheck Protection Program helped the Sadaatis keep their agency running.
Ana Garcia, too, has benefited from chamber membership. She has owned and run Que Rico Bakery at 290 N. Main St. for 18 years.
“They send me emails and text messages all the time,” said Garcia, “and when I had to reopen my business after Hurricane Sandy, they helped me contact FEMA and the Small Business Administration. When I reopened my store, the Chamber of Commerce was there, cutting the ribbon.”
The networking through projects and luncheons, said Bennett, connects businesses that make a good mix, like a children’s after-school program that needed help promoting its presence and discovered a local marketing firm at a luncheon.
“They get to know each other and build trust,” said Bennett. “Trust is a huge, huge, huge element, always, and helping business owners establish trust is truly vital.”
The chamber’s structure grants both strength and flexibility to the 100-plus members, which include not only retail and service businesses, but the Freeport Memorial Library and the Community Church of the Nazarene. General membership costs a modest yearly dues. About 40 members operate at the director level, which may be achieved when a business has been a member in good standing for a full year. Directors vote on issues involving chamber business and pay a regular assessment to fund the luncheons for the meetings. Above the directors is a six-member executive board: the president, three vice presidents who act on the president’s behalf in his absence, a treasurer, and a secretary.
This structure enabled the chamber to survive the pandemic with minimal impact on its finances.
“We’ve been very frugal in spending and we’re careful with what we do,” Jackson said. “We normally hold three or four fundraisers a year. During COVID we haven’t done any fundraisers, and we’ve still managed to maintain our reserves.”
Moving their office from its prior location saved money, thanks to Mayor Robert Kennedy’s willingness to let the chamber rent space in the Sea Breeze Park building at an affordable rate. Modernizing the chamber’s computer system and accounting software, plus hiring an accountant, has upgraded the record keeping as the chamber expands.
“Striving for excellence is always important,” Bennett said. “We want to do better, keep on growing, and have meetings where members can ask questions without always having to know the answers right away. When your mind is open to possibilities, you can create a think tank where we find the solutions together.”
“You have camaraderie and closeness,” said Jackson, “and it keeps it local, which is important.”