In 1948, 33 men came together to form something they (naturally) called the West Shore Businessmen’s Association.
At the time, commerce on the western side of the Susquehanna River paled in comparison to the booming industrial city of Harrisburg, as the postwar migration to the suburbs was only beginning.
My, how times have changed.
Today, the area between Harrisburg and Carlisle is thick with stores, restaurants, auto dealers, offices and many other businesses, making the 70th anniversary of that once-tiny group a reason for celebration.
“Each month, we, as a staff, are going to be doing something revolving around the number 70,” said George Book, president of the West Shore Chamber of Commerce, the organization’s moniker since 1956. “One month, we’re going to PA parks and forests to plant 70 trees. It’s us going out and doing something for ourselves, but also giving back to our community, as well.”
Book described the chamber as the “switchboard operator” of local businesses, due to its ability to provide services designed to connect businesses throughout the area. It now includes more than 700 members, 80 percent of which are small businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
The group’s composition also has changed greatly over seven decades. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of female entrepreneurs and business people on the West Shore, remaking the very nature of the one-time men’s club.
Nearly a decade ago, Jennifer Buehler, a financial advisor of Wells Fargo Advisors, urged her employer to get involved with the chamber because, to her, the benefits were obvious.
“We weren’t really involved as an office with the West Shore Chamber of Commerce,” she said. “And I thought, well, what a great opportunity to get involved and start to network with other businesses and get to know people in the area.”
As a new member, Buehler immediately involved herself in a number of committees.
“I wanted to get involved right away because the best way to make the most of your membership is to get involved,” Buehler said. “I think the cool thing is that the more people get involved, the more comfortable you are to go to different events because you end up seeing and connecting with the same people.”
Over the years, Buehler has taken advantage of opportunities provided to her by the chamber, serving two terms on the board. Her work has earned her numerous honors, including the George C. Hoopy Award for her committee involvement and the Les Ginanni Business and Community Connection Award for her philanthropic efforts.
For other West Shore Chamber members, including Bob Kessler Jr. of Lemoyne-based Kessler’s Foods, involvement and networking happen primarily through events sponsored by the chamber.
A member since the 1970s, Kessler said he enjoys the ability to give back to the community and connect with other businesses through event sponsorships.
Kessler and his business participate primarily in two annual Chamber of Commerce events—“Taste of the Chamber” and “Business & Industry Night.” “Taste of the Chamber” is an opportunity for food businesses to showcase what they have to offer. With a large hot dog cart and an eye-catching umbrella, Kessler’s Foods brings its products right to the event for everyone to enjoy.
“We like to give back to the community, and we think it’s important for our company and for the members of our team to be involved in activities that are beneficial to the community and promote business within the community,” Kessler said.
Both Kessler and Buehler believe that making personal connections through the chamber makes good business sense. Chamber events offer people the chance to get to know one another both personally and as providers of goods and services.
“I think people who are in the chamber tend to purchase products that are sold by other chamber members,” Kessler said.
According to Book, building relationships is an important way that the West Shore Chamber of Commerce supports its members. Because of this, the chamber offers events several times a month at different times during the day to accommodate busy schedules.
“We’re looking for opportunities for our members to get together face-to-face, have a conversation, tell each other what they do,” Book said. “It’s seeing if there are some opportunities to either do business together or be a referral for each other as they move forward.”
For more information about the West Shore Chamber of Commerce, visit wschamber.org.