New Paltz’s business community suffered an existential crisis of sorts in August 2021, when its Regional Chamber of Commerce decided to cut its losses and fold after 66 years in operation, citing “financial hardships resulting from the pandemic.” It was a local manifestation of a phenomenon that has been happening across the country in recent years. Even before COVID-19, rapidly changing communication technologies had already proven a challenge to the Chamber business model, and the necessity for social distancing was the death-knell for many such organizations. If you’re paying dues mainly to attend monthly Chamber breakfasts so you can do networking, and suddenly those breakfasts can’t happen, membership soon loses its allure.
Fortunately, another not-for-profit entity in New Paltz was poised to step in and pick up the pieces, tweaking them to continue some of the Chamber’s offerings while letting go of outmoded models. That was One Epic Place, whose co-founders, Julie Robbins and Nicole Langlois, were both active on the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors for many years and ran its Wisdom of Women program.
By October, Robbins and Langlois had renovated the building at 126 Main Street, next door to One Epic Place headquarters at 122 Main, and turned part of it into a new New Paltz Visitors’ Center (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2021/10/13/one-epic-place-opens-new-paltz-visitors-center-at-126-main-street). Thus was one of the Chamber’s crucial functions preserved: providing newcomers and tourists a physical location to get oriented upon arrival in town, and to learn about what services are offered by local businesses and how to reach them.
While primarily serving as a business incubator and shared office space for members, One Epic Place was already hosting networking events of the sort that are traditionally associated with Chambers of Commerce, such as monthly coffees (outdoors during the pandemic) and quarterly mixers. And opening the Visitors’ Center provided a perfect excuse to adopt the well-established Chamber website, under the new domain name https://visitnewpaltz.com, as a place to increase member businesses’ visibility.
Now the last piece of the puzzle has clicked into place: Langlois and Robbins are launching a new business networking entity called New Paltz Connective. Its mission statement reads, “We strive to create a common ground for local businesses and residents to connect, collaborate and thrive. Our goal is to provide a system of support that encourages us to promote ourselves and neighbors, grow our local economy, give back to the community, stay connected and give and receive support and inspiration.”
A “soft launch” kickoff event for New Paltz Connective is being planned for Thursday, June 16, but the initiative is not expected to hit high gear until September. “We’re trying to go into this cautiously,” says Langlois, “very prepared.”
New Paltz Connective is intended to pick up some of the balls that the Chamber dropped, but on a “hyperlocal” rather than a regional level. “A lot of old members came to us asking how we can fill the gap left by the Chamber, since One Epic Place’s business mission was very much aligned with the Chamber’s,” Langlois explains. Adds Robbins, “It’s not in us to not do it. We want to see our community thrive.”
While the big, labor-intensive annual events formerly organized by the Chamber, such as Taste of New Paltz, are being spun off to other sponsors, Connective will host smaller networking events – more of them, eventually, than One Epic Place has been holding. It will publish an events calendar and an online directory of local businesses, which will be “open to anybody. We want to get residents involved as well,” Robbins says.
She and Langlois envision New Paltz Connective as having four “pillars,” which they encapsulate as: “Promote your business; Advocate for local businesses; Gather and connect with your community; Educate and share your skills.” The advocacy piece was mostly a behind-the-scenes function of the Chamber, but a vital one that needs to be sustained, they argue. “It’s important to us to continue staying abreast of what’s going on at the State and County level and attend ‘town and gown’ meetings,” says Robbins. Larger community issues such as traffic, parking and rent increases have heavy impacts on small businesses as well as on individual residents, she notes.
The education piece, in which members are offered opportunities to share their skills and mentor novice entrepreneurs, was a more active part of One Epic Place’s mission before COVID made it difficult to host such gatherings in person. “Eventually we’ll start up the Lunch-and-Learns and workshops again,” says Langlois. “Business owners who have done well are often looking for an opportunity to give back.”
The organizers emphasize that what one gets out of New Paltz Connective will be “customizable” based on the needs of the business. They envision it as a “partnership” among businesses, rather than a “membership” organization per se like the Chamber. That said, participation will come at various levels: The “Partner” package, with a commitment of $180 per year or $20 per month, entitles your business to such services as kickoffs and ribbon-cuttings, directory listings, discounts, badges, space to display material in the Visitors’ Center, social media “shoutouts” and access to gatherings. Sponsors or “Allies” are entitled to enhanced advertising and promotion packages at four different cost levels.
Both Robbins and Langlois say that New Paltz Connective’s offerings will ultimately be shaped by what participants want and are willing to help organize or sponsor. “It’s a collaborative effort. We want to have an Advisory Committee. If someone wants to organize a block party, we’d be happy to facilitate it,” says Langlois. “We want this to grow organically,” Robbins agrees. Part of the agenda for the June 16 soft kickoff event will be asking interested local businesspersons what their priorities for the organization would be.
Meanwhile, folks are invited to stop in at One Epic Place and offer their ideas. “Come and chat, have a cup of tea,” says Langlois. “We really mean it when we say the door’s open. We take it to heart. We’ll try to accommodate and make it happen.”