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Smithers and District Chamber of Commerce turns 100

Century old organization continues to promote local economy

A non-profit organization that helped to incorporate the Town of Smithers is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year while continuing to shape the community.

The Smithers Citizens Association was formed in 1913 and acted as a community leader until the Smithers was officially incorporated as a village in 1921. From that organization, the Smithers Board of Trade was formed, and had its first meeting on January 14, 1924.

L.B. Warner, the owner and publisher of The Interior News at the time was elected to that board, making the newspaper one of the longest-standing members of what would become the Chamber of Commerce. The board changed its name to the Smithers District Chamber of Commerce in 1929.

In 1948, Chamber decided to establish a Junior Chamber of Commerce in Smithers to give young men a voice and allow them to gain life and business skills.

“This allowed for youth to be involved in their community and discuss issues that are important to them,” said Bulkley Valley Museum curator Kira Westby.

”Many of the events held by the Junior Chamber (known as the “Jaycees”) were for fundraising. These events included dances and beauty contests where funds went to the local hospital, or other community improvements like building a new playground, and funds for the hospital. The Jaycees also organized campaigns like safe driving awareness, they sold licence plate extensions with safe driving slogans.”

While the Jaycees no longer exist, the Chamber still supports youth entrepreneurs with other programs. For example, the chamber has operated The Frozen North student-led business program since 2015, which allows youth to operate a mobile ice cream trailer for the summer.

In the last 100 years, the Chamber has evolved from a group of men founding the town to a non-profit organization that advocates and supports those who work in the Bulkley Valley. It currently has more than 200 members.

Another long-time member is Smithers Home Hardware, which has been in business under different owners and names since the 1920s. Current owner Theo Bandstra said being a part of the Chamber is important.

“If something is important to you, the most common way to show that is by becoming a member,” he said. “Whether it’s a community group, a church or political party, being a member matters not just financially (although that matters too) but because it brings a group of like-minded people together with the goal of improving the world in their relative sphere of influence.”

The Chamber is well known for its events, such as the annual business awards and trade expo, however, chamber manager Sheena Miller said there is a lot of behind-the-scenes communications and connecting that not everyone sees.

“What really makes the Chamber unique is the advocacy piece,” she explained. “We help our members on all kinds of individualized business issues. Community members that come in and have unique needs, on all different subjects, whether it’s from immigration issues, to taxation, to the rising cost of business to childcare, there’s retention, recruitment, there’s all these different issues, and a lot of them are economic development driven that we support our businesses on.”

Miller added that she can have a tough job but her passion for seeing the community strive pushes her to excel.

“The heart of what drives the Chamber is meeting community needs and I’m trying to exceed them. So, over the decades that the Chamber has existed, the Chamber has evolved to support whatever this community needed.”

Miller has been with the Chamber for five years now and said one of her biggest accomplishments to date was helping businesses get through the pandemic, working and also volunteering 70 hours a week.

“The Chamber was kind of the hub of communications for the economy. We provided a lot of support around sharing government messaging as well as working on economic development files during that period,” she said.

Miller works alongside office administrator Susan Bundock, who after 27 years in the role, is retiring later this year.

Bundock also helps to run the adjoining visitor’s centre.

For decades, the visitor centre has been operated by the Chamber. The Town of Smithers supports some of the costs of operating it through a fee-for-service agreement according to which the Chamber gets the building for free and pays annual taxes on the building. Essentially, Miller explains, the fee-for-service agreement is a contract to provide services.

“I think the part of what has kept me working at the Chamber over 27 years is the diversity of my day-to-day,” said Bundock. “Whether it was the need to multitask all the parts of my job in a day, the visitors coming in and being able to chat with people from all over the world, or working with many young entrepreneurs over the years as well as the opportunity to work with the different chamber members and board members and serve the greater community.”

Part of what makes the local chamber thrive is the amount of people willing to volunteer to make it a success. The board is made up of business members, willing to give their time to help region do well.

“It’s a passionate group of individuals that truly care about the welfare of the business community,” said board President Trever Morris. “I encourage any business owner to sign up, there’s a lot of benefits, but part of it is just, that’s a way of giving back to the business community because it’s all about membership in terms of our revenues. And there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes. If a business owner doesn’t know of any other way to try to give back to the community or support the local business community, just being a member helps.”

Miller said she is looking forward to what the future holds for the Chamber. She said currently, the economic landscape in the region is tough, still reeling from the aftereffects of the pandemic such as supply chain issues and the rising cost of doing business but she knows that the business community is resilient and says the Chamber will continue to have its back.

She added that having a diverse economy also helps, with at least 18 viable different sectors.

“Smithers is so much more than pretty mountains,” she said.

The chamber’s business awards will be held during a gala to celebrate its centennial anniversary. The theme will be the Roaring Twenties. It will be held on March ___

Junior Chamber of Commerce banquet at Bulkley Hotel in the 1950s. (Photo from Bulkley Valley Museum archives.)
Chamber of Commerce float at Smithers’ 60th Anniversary Parade. (Photo from Bulkley Valley Museum archives.)

Marisca Bakker

About the Author: Marisca Bakker

Marisca was born and raised in Ontario and moved to Smithers almost ten years ago on a one-year contract.
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