FLEMINGTON, NJ - The Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce, in existence since 1916 and headquartered at the historic house on 119 Main Street in Flemington, has survived and led the charge for local merchants, businesses and larger scale employers in the county through the Great Depression, world wars, 9/11 and the 2008 recession.

In the midst of mandated shutdowns for nonessential New Jersey businesses and workers due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Hunterdon Chamber has shifted to increased online and virtual engagement, as well as presenting survival tools and new platforms to connect area businesses.

On March 31, from 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m., the Chamber will offer a “Virtual Networking Meet and Greet” using Zoom. Registration is available here.

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The event features a brief performance-selling seminar from Jim Barnoski, of Sandler Training, who has contributed as a business coach, facilitator and trainer, running workshops and the nine-month Leadership Hunterdon program for professionals.

On March 27, the Hunterdon Chamber offered a new webinar, “Employment Law,” led by two human resources and employment attorneys who spoke about legal matters businesses are now facing, with critical decisions on employees and operations.

The week prior, on March 19, a joint effort by the Chamber of Commerce and Hunterdon County e-blasted out requests for “Employers' Input on Economic Impact” through online survey participation. Several community leaders and elected officials in the New York and New Jersey region sent out similar surveys, as the data collected can help track businesses and sectors requiring assistance and the information can then be forwarded to the appropriate government agencies.

President and CEO of the Hunterdon County Chamber of Commerce Christopher Phelan, also the OEM coordinator for his hometown Raritan Township, noted that the online outreach and participation are coordinated plans emerging from recent discussions “on the things our local businesses have to do to start mitigating their economic recovery, strategize and re-prioritize.”

He said the March 31 virtual networking will be a great opportunity for people to meet and engage with Chamber members through an entirely new venue for this modern era.

“We have talked about what business leaders, employers and employees can do to ease stress and really come up with tactical strategies,” he said. “When Marc Saluk of the Hunterdon County Office of Economic Development did a radio program with me Thursday, we spent time explaining the Resources site. Right on the chamber’s home website, it’s laid out and categorized and updated several times per day. We are continuing to shift to virtual meeting platforms, holding both our chamber’s board and executive committee meetings this way. Leadership Hunterdon held its meetings and sessions virtually on March 20.”

“The event rolls out virtual networking opportunities with more on the horizon as people have to stay connected in this environment and with restrictions of staying home to stop the virus’ spread,” Phelan added.

Initiatives specific for industries and business categories were worked on immediately in response to COVID-19 closures and socio-economic impacts.

A special Facebook subgroup called “Hunterdon County Restaurant Blitz -- Takeout & Curbside Service” was instituted by the Chamber of Commerce in mid-March. Patrons from nearly every restaurant in the county are supporting these businesses via family-sized orders to go, and going a step further to create a new localized form of YELP or TripAdvisor reviews with many photos of delicious well-packed meals.

As of March 28 – with just one week of postings and operation – the new group had 2,589 members.

“We have taken that to the next level, and we now offer a list of establishments by town for who’s open and what they’re providing,” Phelan said. “Restaurants and food businesses are able to utilize that platform, and, on the chamber’s home website, there is a tab for the group.”

“Here in Hunterdon, we are relatively a smaller business community of the state, so our nonprofit community is also a key part in our business community,” he added. “Several nonprofits fall within the top 20 largest employers in Hunterdon County, so we’ve set up another initiative in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The chamber organized the Facebook page, ‘Hunterdon County Nonprofits in Need.’ This is for both the small, non-staffed and larger, staffed nonprofits and folks supporting causes.”

Phelan noted that, as a nonprofit, the Hunterdon Chamber’s initiatives and programs are continually driven by around 200 active volunteers.

On March 26, Phelan posted to the Nonprofits Needs page a call for donations from the Flemington Area Food Pantry. It is seeking to provide its weekly client pool of approximately 400 with two rolls of toilet paper apiece during the month of April.

The Pantry has 1,900 rolls for this effort now, and is asking for donations to reach the 3,200 threshold.

Other organizations with information shared on the new chamber Facebook group page include the United Way of Hunterdon County, Fisherman’s Mark Social Services, Cancer Support Community Central NJ and a message from the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, as they respond to inquiries about the cancellation of the Clinton St. Patrick’s Day, which would have been held March 15.

Ten years ago the Chamber instituted the online platform for business discussion topics and Q&A through Hunterdon Chamber Radio, which broadcasts and streams like continuous business talk radio and topics on the Internet, as well as streaming live on the Chamber Facebook page with videos and more social media, including a Chamber YouTube channel.

“We saw the opportunity and need with the pandemic to get and distribute accurate information,” Phelan said. “There’s an avalanche of news and information from everywhere, and folks are really trying now to get centralized COVID-19 facts. We utilize data from our county health department. Through the Chamber Radio platform, we can provide solid resources and information and allow people to ‘ask the experts.’”

Phelan said he has heard several professionals explain how telecommuting and working from home can be pretty isolating. The chamber’s position, he said, is that offering virtual networking and ways of connecting can be a real added value for area businesses to stay connected and continue to do business at a critical juncture for the country.

“Some chamber businesses have questioned the right time to prospect and look for business connections,” he said. “Jim Barnoski offered great advice during the chamber radio program, saying it’s the right time to strike up conversations with folks you routinely do business with, share stories. And use the phone, look through the contacts you have and check in with someone you have not found time to reach out to over the last several months.”

The Hunterdon Chamber is governed by a board of directors featuring business leaders from all industries and types of professions. In Flemington, at the Hunterdon Chamber’s headquarters, the office is usually staffed by employees.

But Phelan said that, like any small business or nonprofit organization, the chamber continues to adapt with working remotely, new priorities and virtual events, “in order for us to keep serving the community.”

The Hunterdon Chamber works to connect its 600 member businesses and organizations throughout Hunterdon County, accounting for approximately slightly more than 15,000 full-time employees. The Chamber represents a vast majority of Hunterdon small to midsize businesses, as well as large county employers including Hunterdon Healthcare & Medical Center and 3M Flemington, two organizations on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our demographic is about 75 percent business-to-business professional services and about 25 percent is from tourism attractions, restaurateurs, hospitality and retail,” Phelan said. “We also have six or seven local business organizations throughout Hunterdon County, and, starting March 18, we’ve had weekly conference calls with leadership from each local organization, including the Flemington Community Partnership (LoveFlemington.com), the Clinton Guild, the Delaware River Towns Chamber of Commerce, High Bridge Business Association and High Bridge Economic Development Committee and Frenchtown Business & Professional Association. These groups distinctly represent the local retailers and the delivery of goods and services in each locale.”

There’s also a strong connection and ongoing communication between the Flemington-based nonprofit chamber and the “state chambers community,” including New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce, the NJBIA (Business & Industry Association), continuing pre-crisis and during COVID-19 shutdowns for much commercial activity.

“We have become a society reliant on the incredible technology that we have, but we have drifted away from picking up the phone and just having a call with somebody,” he said. “Here is a great opportunity to get a call in with somebody. It is good for everybody, good to share ideas and very good for your mental health. I have literally spoken with dozens of members per day that are just calling the chamber or me just to talk and it’s wonderful to discuss things.”

The remote work necessity does not diminish any of the incredible response work now taking place in the community from Hunterdon Healthcare and by the many first responders, including his colleagues within Raritan OEM, police and fire divisions, Phelan said.

“But a critical component to our recovery here and across America is the economy,” he said. “Having the resources, especially for the small businesses, is something where we saw the series as very important to offer.”

The Hunterdon Chamber has continuously promoted to its membership the March 19 approval of Gov. Phil Murphy’s request, as the U.S. Small Business Association extends Economic Injury (disaster relief) loans,  low-interest federal disaster loans for working capital up to $2 million. Information on evolving programs for loans, small business resources and more are available at the Hunterdon County Chamber’s website, hunterdon-chamber.org.