Rural areas in the United States account for 80 percent of the land area but only 20 percent of the population (Macke & Markley, n.d.; The Aspin Institute, n.d.). Yet, they are major providers of energy (gas, oil, coal), food, natural resources, and contain much of the manufacturing sector. Rural areas are important recreation and vacation destinations and increasingly, retirement locations.
On the other hand, rural economic performance is not doing well. For instance, rural regions account for a small and slowly decreasing share of U.S. employment. The rural poverty rate is higher than in urban areas. And, wages are low. The average rural wage in 2001 was $24,648 versus $36.376 per worker reported in urban areas (The Aspin Institute, n.d.).
Several trends contribute to the decline in economic performance in rural areas. For one, there has been the population migration to urban areas. Interstate highway systems have replaced railroads thus marginalizing towns originally based on the railroads. These highway systems have also replaced many state highways, thus bypassing many small towns. Globalization and outsourcing rural-based manufacturing plants have resulted in closing of these facilities. Last, the entry of Wal-Mart style, big box, stores into larger rural towns has led to the demise of small town merchants. Essentially, rural areas are faced with a new knowledge-based and specialized economy versus the commodity-based one of old.
One approach to slowing this decline and developing the economies of rural communities lies in asset-based entrepreneurship through building business using creative, historic, and natural assets in the community. Here, local small business owners and entrepreneurs need to set the foundation for future economic growth (Allen, J. C., n.d.).
Another model of economic and community development is community-based entrepreneurial training and support called the Western Edge Program. It includes helping entrepreneurs create and evaluate their business plans, assisting small business owners implement their business plans to start and grow their businesses, and to provide follow-up help (Allen, J. C., n.d.).
The purpose of this paper is to examine how small chambers of commerce in rural areas help promote members' businesses and provide educational programs to improve members' business skills. These activities are then compared to promotion and educational services provided by a large chamber located in an urban area. Winslow's, "Business Community Relations 101: Getting the Most Out of Your Chamber Membership" (Winslow, L., n.d.) serves as a framework or structure for this study.
The concept of a chamber of commerce first appeared in Europe at the end of the 17th century. The earliest locally-based chamber in North America was established in Charleston, South Carolina in 1772 (Morro Bay, n.d.). Today there are 2,800 state and local chamber chapters and 3,000,000 business members in the U.S. (U.S. Chamber of Commerce, n.d.).
As with their ancestral guilds, the activities of early U.S. chambers were limited to commerce, at least initially. However, over time, the role of chambers expanded to include recruiting new businesses to an area, job creation and other socioeconomic concerns such as housing, public education, workforce development, community services, and unemployment. More recently, chambers have become active in the legislative areas of local, state, and federal government in order to look out after the interests of business members and the economic and social welfare of their communities (Morro Bay, n.d.).
Chambers of commerce are an important force in any community, large or small, yet little academic research has been done on them. Studies include one by Dawley, Stephens, and Stephens (2005) who studied the multi-dimension ability of organization commitment of volunteer chambers of commerce board members. Modeling was used to examine the effects of organizational commitment on several critical roles the board member is to perform. Study results showed that normative, affective, and continued...