They called themselves “Boosters for a Greater Great Bend.”
BY DALE HOGG
In May of 1921, a band of dedicated local business owners and civic leaders, men and women, came together to form the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce. A month later, a roster of the membership went out with such names as Charles Lischesky, Earl Moses and Will Townsley (owner of Tribune Publishing).
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the chamber’s service to the businesses community. Members are using this year as lead-in to the centennial observance, a milestone that will take center stage at next year’s annual banquet.
In the meantime, the chamber held an anniversary celebration on Thursday during the annual Art and Wine Walk in downtown Great Bend.
A long legacy
“A chamber’s legacy will hold lasting value and impact when the chamber acts as the voice for positive growth and change, as well as for the overall economic prosperity of the communities we serve,” current GBCC President Megan Barfield said. “We promote and serve. We connect. We create opportunity. We convene, champion and act as a catalyst.”
For Great Bend, joining the Chamber has been a long-standing tradition for any new business, she said. “‘It’s just what you do.’ I’ve heard this from many over the years.”
But, that isn’t necessarily the case in 2021, she said. Still, in comparison to most chambers, the GBCC does have a large membership count in relation to the city’s population, with 550 members as of May, 2021.
“The reputation of the Great Bend Chamber has been strong,” Barfield said. “But, like many chambers across the country, as new generations begin opening their businesses or taking over established businesses, the mindset has shifted to more of an independent approach.”
A changing landscape
Nonetheless, “while this is true for some in Great Bend, overall the mindset is collaboration, and connecting is key,” she said, noting the chamber remains a very relevant force.
“This is how our Chamber continues to evolve and grow – by creating opportunities for businesses to come together, by being present in the community, and by championing the businesses and their successes,” she said. “The Great Bend Chamber of Commerce can and wants to be the best friend to the business community. With friendly faces and a commitment to their success, we build bridges connecting the community to their business eco-center.”
The Barton County Historical Society has a treasure trove of information on the chamber over the years. It includes such memorabilia as the original 200-plus name membership list, photographs, and visitor guides and city maps.
A trip through the bulging folder is a journey through the changing business landscape. From buggies and dirt streets to automobiles and the bustling paved streets of today, progress is demonstrated.
Businesses came and businesses went. But, while the pictures show how the retail and industrial scene has evolved over the century, the chamber’s mission has remained the same.
The term “chamber of commerce” can be dated clear back to 1599 in Marseille, France. “It’s amazing that over four centuries ago, it was recognized that when a collective group comes together, moving beyond individual interests, forward momentum and action will result,” Barfield said. That was true in 1921 and is true today.
“The establishment of the Great Bend Chamber of Commerce in 1921 provided the merchants, traders, craftsmen and industrialists a public forum to discuss issues facing them as a business community,” she said. This representation of common interests became, and remains, the foundation of chambers of commerce worldwide.
“To that end, our mission has stayed relatively the same in our efforts to maintain our fingers on the pulse of our members and the issues they face, and promoting the developments.”
The difference is in how that is done, she said. “The mission stands as is, yet how we approach it evolves with the businesses and community.”
It’s mission is simple: “The Great Bend Chamber of Commerce will promote and improve the business climate in the city of Great Bend through its services and partnerships that encourage growth and assist existing and new businesses in reaching their business goals.
What about the future?
“I do believe the chamber is here to stay,” Barfield said. “We will continue to bring together businesses over common interests and working to engage not just the business owner, but their staff as well. Doing so is a must as it allows a higher chance of employee retention within the business and community.”
The Chamber world is a spider web of resources and connections, a hub, if you will, she said. “There’s fun. There’s hard work. There’s hours of conversations learning and listening, all in an effort to continue forward momentum alongside the business community.”
It will be vital to maintain relationships with each other inside Great Bend (Barton County, the city, Great Bend Economic Development Inc. and the Convention and Visitors Bureau) and outside Great Bend (state and federal delegations). “Doing so enables us to be a voice for Great Bend and Barton County,” she said.
This works both ways, as new ideas are brought in as well. We have to be willing to think and work “out of our ‘silos’ to mobilize businesses, employees, volunteers and the community-at-large. Forward momentum takes a village. It is not a one-person or one-organization job and the Chamber is in a position to serve as a catalyst and connector.”
Speaking for rural chambers, they will most likely shift to serving not only their memberships, but serving those needing assistance with regard to all facets of commerce, mobilizing more individuals and bringing diversified communities togehter.
These areas include agriculture, manufacturing, retail, quality of life, training, workforce, employee engagement, recruitment and retention of employees, entrepreneurship, etc.
This is what Barfield meant by the chamber being a hub.
For information, visit greatbend.org or call 620-792-2401.