For some time now, local chambers of commerce have recognized the efficiencies of merging everything from saving on rent and salaries to the ability to attract members from a broader territory.

Yet it took more than six years for the Northridge and Chatsworth chambers of commerce to finally reach an agreement to merge their organizations.

Political considerations, turf battles and identity crises posed such obstacles that the groups failed to reach an agreement in two earlier votes.

"It was a little bit like giving birth to an elephant," said Leslie Himes, who has been appointed co-chair of the new entity called the Northwest San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The Northridge and Chatsworth chambers finally approved the union earlier this month, creating a new entity with about 500 members and encompassing an area that includes Porter Ranch.

Concerns over retaining the identity of the different communities plagued the two groups since the consolidation idea was first proposed in 1994. By then the two chambers had jointly run a number of different events, and the advantages of a merger had started to become evident.

But while the proposal won the approval of the boards of both chambers, the majority of Northridge members failed to green-light the move.

"People didn't really see it as combining," said Maureen Fried, co-chair of what had been the Northridge chamber. "They saw it as a loss. (The thinking was,) we wouldn't be gaining a new community, we would be losing our autonomy."

During the second attempt, chamber leadership attempted to assuage the loss-of-identity fears by adding a banner under the chamber name that specifically identified the individual communities involved, but that solution failed to pass muster with the Northridge chamber board.

Last week, no one seemed really sure about what led to the final yes vote. But those involved pointed to a number of factors, including Fried's willingness to rally the Northridge membership behind her and a growing desire to resolve the issue and move on.

Like a number of chambers that have or are considering a merger, the new entity hopes to attract larger corporations to its membership roster while at the same time reaping significant cost savings by consolidating headquarters offices, management and other operating and administrative tasks.

Dwindling numbers

Membership at many chambers has dwindled in recent years, largely because their programs geared to small, localized communities no longer meet the demands of many businesses in the community. But by joining forces, these organizations can often muster more funding to improve their programs.

Last year, the Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village chambers merged. And the Pacoima, Mission Hills and Greater San Fernando chambers are currently in the process of merging. (See story on facing page.)

But building consensus to merge can also pose almost-insurmountable problems. Member businesses pay dues with the expectation that the chamber will champion their particular interests, and there is a widely held perception that each chamber has a unique set of circumstances and issues to contend with.

"I just think there are a couple of things that can go wrong," said Walter Prince, a member of the board of directors of the former Northridge Chamber of Commerce who was one of a handful of members who opposed the merger. "One is the loss of community identity. The chamber should promote the community. When you have a combination, I don't know how you get equal promotion for all the communities under that umbrella."

To some extent, successfully navigating a chamber merger requires a leadership willing to aggressively support the move. And because the issue often carries emotional overtones, many chamber heads are reluctant to take a firm stand.

"This took a lot of work, and I don't think there was anyone who was in favor of it enough to carry the flag to bring it forward," said Fried. "When I was elected, I really saw it would be a good move, and I picked up that flag. When we put the emotions aside and said, 'Let's look at this as a business move,' it started to look very good."

Savings on salary

Even with a leader at the helm, though, the mechanics of chamber mergers can be tricky. An individual chamber can exercise control over its board of directors, its president and its chairman or chief executive. But once the organizations merge, members often regard officials from "the other side" with suspicion.

To solve the problem, the Northwest Valley chamber will retain the directors of both chambers through their terms of office. The top leadership was drawn from both chambers as well. Himes had been head of the Chatsworth chamber and Fried led the Northridge group.

But those positions are voluntary. One of the greatest advantages of chamber mergers is the savings realized on the salaried chief executive position, which can account for anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 a year, depending on the size of the chamber. Obviously, retaining the salaried heads of both chambers would undercut much of the rationale for merging in the first place.

For Northridge and Chatsworth, the problem was solved purely by coincidence when the former head of the Chatsworth chamber, Pam Campeau, resigned to take a similar post at the Thousand Oaks-Westlake Village Chamber of Commerce. Campeau's departure left no dispute over which chamber's chief executive would take the helm of the merged organization a job that went to the former Northridge chamber chief, Richard Hardman.

"During the other runs at this (merger), both places had CEOs in place," Himes said. "And because of the departure of Pam Campeau, that left a major stumbling block out of the way."

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