The Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce commemorated its 2010 annual meeting and awards presentation at the end of January with the biggest single event in the organization’s long and distinguished history. And the sellout crowd celebrated having achieved an all-time record membership in 2009, as well: 1,355 members, making the Chamber among the most powerful advocacy and member-services business organizations in Maine. 2010 seems on pace to continue the Chamber’s recent successes, since membership renewals “are well ahead of where they’d been at this time in other years,” according to Chamber president, Chip Morrison, the ubiquitous face and voice of the membership and of the larger Androscoggin County community.

“The support of our members and the growth of the organization is gratifying, of course,” Morrison said recently, “but what it really does is provide us with a base of people committed to the well-being of the community. They devote thousands and thousands of hours of volunteer time. That enables us to really expand what we can do to help our members grow and prosper, and to help make our area the best possible place to live and work.”

The Chamber has a long record of advocating on behalf of its members with local, state and federal legislators, agencies and regulators. It supports its members with a wide range of networking opportunities, access to education, information, and expertise that will help them in the successful pursuit of their own missions. And there is a constant need to expand the list of services the organization provides, both to its membership and to the public. “This is an incredibly diverse and vibrant community,” Chip explained. “Our members are divided into more than 300 different categories, and no single group constitutes even a plurality. That pretty much reflects the nature of the area in which we live, though, and we try to provide representation from all elements of the community as part of our leadership. The 37 members of our board of directors are an energetic bunch of individuals who are really committed to our community.”

While the cities and towns of Androscoggin County were once dominated by the manufacturing culture represented by the giant mills, the decline of those traditional industries has actually enabled a more robust and diverse economy, one better positioned for the 21st Century, and the Chamber has had to respond accordingly. Among its long-term commitments is a deep engagement with education, the vital underpinning of the new economic realities – from pre-K through post-secondary, continuing education and professional development for adults, scholarships, and advocacy.

One of the most successful new initiatives undertaken by the Chamber in recent years has been support for the Young Professionals of the Lewiston Auburn Area (YPLAA), a cadre of over 400 members who are on a path to become the future civic and business leaders of the region. They have been engaged with the community with more than 20 specialized projects and initiatives of their own this past year, undertaken by members of six committees. YPLAA recently commemorated its own annual meeting, their second, at which half a dozen specific awards were conferred.

While the Chamber has contributed directly, in many ways, to the diversification and strengthening of the local economy, one which despite the struggles of the past couple of years has continued to lead the state in its ability to create and retain jobs, it has recently expanded the work of the Regional Image Committee to support the notion of the greater Androscoggin communities as a tourist destination.

“Many of us don’t see our own forest, for the trees,” Morrison said. “We have an abundance of unique historical attractions, educational and healthcare facilities; special events and festivals that attract guests from all over the country, even from abroad. The Dempsey Challenge alone not only raised over $1-million for the Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing, but it also attracted an unprecedented level of major media attention. We have nearly two dozen wonderful arts organizations and venues – music, theater, dance, galleries, museums. There is world-class dining and all sorts of lodging options.” The Chamber’s recently completed presentation of L/A’s Cultural and Tourism Assets documented an industry that employs nearly 5,700 people locally and generates more than $14 million, by conservative estimates.

“We’re really grateful to our members,” Morrison said, “because it’s their level of support that lets us do so much for so many. We really are the product of literally thousands of individuals working together.”