COPPERAS COVE — The Copperas Cove Chamber of Commerce has faced some serious identity and financial challenges in recent years.
A 2016 chamber audit showed financial mismanagement and resulted in the loss of city funds. Members of the board and paid staff have resigned, with four chamber presidents being named in the last two years and no permanent president currently in place.
The event for which the chamber is best known, Rabbit Fest, is acknowledged to have an uncertain future after 2018.
As the chamber continues working to regroup, “We’re trying to really define who we are, what we are,” said Maurice Tobin, the chamber’s interim president.
The chamber’s website does not include any kind of mission statement or a description of the organization’s purpose.
“The general purpose of each Texas Chamber of Commerce is to assist small businesses and enhance economic growth of the surrounding area.
Chambers of commerce provide local businesses with an opportunity to network with other businesses in the area by working together and coordinating events. Texas Chambers of Commerce also provide local region and community information for visitors and new residents,” according to the website officialusa.com.
A big part of defining the chamber, according to Tobin, is making sure people understand the organization is a separate entity, not part of the city, and never has been. He acknowledged that people sometimes get confused between the chamber and the Economic Development Corporation, which recruits businesses wishing to locate in Copperas Cove, and does fall under the city.
Tobin continued, “The biggest challenge is getting people clear on what we do.” That includes helping with “mom and pop” businesses in the city, helping promote existing businesses and offering networking opportunities, Tobin said.
J.C. Stubbs, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, agreed.
“Our biggest challenge as a chamber is to get back to doing what a chamber is supposed to do, which is support our members and promote business in Copperas Cove.”
In recent years, the chamber sponsored or organized nearly 20 annual events in Copperas Cove, including the Ogletree Gap Carnival, a Haunted Trail Ride, holiday sleigh rides, assorted bike races and the Carson and Barnes Circus. That list has shrunk to just seven for 2018.
“The chamber for awhile became, basically, an event organization and forgot, to an extent, to support its members,” Stubbs said.
Tobin has been with the chamber for more than 13 years, and accepted the interim position about six months ago.
Stubbs has been a member of the chamber since 2013. He became a chamber ambassador in late 2015/early 2016 and was elected to the board in late 2016. He will serve on the board through 2019.
Stubbs encourages representatives of Cove businesses to attend the monthly chamber mixers, the quarterly member forums and the annual banquet. Being a chamber sponsor or ambassador “is a great way to get out and meet new people and network,” Stubbs said.
“We have 300-plus members with only three staff and around a dozen ambassadors,” Stubbs said, but all of them are willing to step up and help Cove businesses grow.
There’s a plan in the works for the chamber to open an executive office facility in Cove Terrace, which will provide space for self-employed people and small offices at reasonable costs, Tobin added. “We’re just waiting on it to be finalized. We need more than a couple tenants to launch it successfully.”
Perhaps the chamber’s best known activity is the annual Rabbit Fest, held in May for nearly four decades. Beyond 2018, the event is in doubt, due to the chamber’s financial difficulties.
The Copperas Cove City Council allowed a marketing agreement with the Chamber of Commerce that provided the chamber with approximately $117,000 in hotel and motel occupancy tax funds for tourism-related events to expire in May 2016, after an audit found the funds were not properly handled by the chamber.
The audit was presented to the council at the Aug. 16, 2016, meeting, according to Herald reports. An accompanying letter from Brian Gordon, a certified public accountant with The Resource Professional Group, included statements such as, “It should be noted that a severe lack of financial controls by the Chamber created a situation where the review of the Chamber records in any meaningful fashion was hindered.”
The auditors noted there was no evidence the funds were misappropriated or that the chamber broke any legal statute during the audit period. “In general, it appears the chamber’s expenditure of funds for the promotion of tourism complied with statutory requirements, except for the commingling of funds,” the report stated.
Sean Corrigan, then chamber president/CEO, resigned on Aug. 24, 2016.
“[The chamber] has been so dysfunctional for so long that he couldn’t get anything done,” said Councilman Kirby Lack in response to Corrigan’s resignation.
“The chamber has had a rocky few years and had to spend too much time trying to stay afloat,” said Laura Jordan, who has been a chamber ambassador since moving to the area in 2016. “Now we have the opportunity to return to our roots, regain those relationships and build new opportunities.”
Jordan has found a sense of community by being a chamber ambassador. “The purpose of the chamber is to let everyone know, ‘It’s all here!’”
Chamber ambassadors spread that message by their presence at ribbon cuttings for Cove businesses, the Business of the Month presentations, grand openings and other chamber-sponsored events such as the Krist Kindl Markt in December.
“We’re also wanting to get back to our history of having a standing Rabbit Fest committee, where multiple people and organizations have input, direction and responsibility in making Rabbit Fest a really great event the entire community can be proud of and draws in people from around the area and beyond,” Stubbs said.
The Copperas Cove City Council voted at the Feb. 20 meeting to rescind Ordinance 2015-24, which required the chamber to pay up to 25 percent of the proceeds from events held at the city’s parks back to the city. The new ordinance, 2018-10, does not contain that requirement, so the chamber’s financial picture may be brighter as more money is retained to invest in promoting businesses in the community.
“We’re working very hard as a staff, a board and through our ambassadors to make sure our members know we’re here to help them and Copperas Cove,” Stubbs said.