10 years later, business leaders reflect on merger of Northern Nevada's 2 chambers

The current Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce staff pose in their new offices on June 15, 2021. Clockwise from top left: Connor Naisbitt, director of operations; Camille Loustalet, information coordinator; Kristine Brown, director of member engagement; and Ann Silver, who took over as CEO in 2016.

The current Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce staff pose in their new offices on June 15, 2021. Clockwise from top left: Connor Naisbitt, director of operations; Camille Loustalet, information coordinator; Kristine Brown, director of member engagement; and Ann Silver, who took over as CEO in 2016. Photo by Kaleb Roedel.

In 2011, when the Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce and Sparks-based Northern Nevada Chamber of Commerce finally merged after years of discussions, the consolidated entity was cash-strapped.

Reno-Sparks was still in the financial grips of the Great Recession and many in business community were fighting to keep their lights on — meaning, paying chamber membership fees was low on their priority list.

“When we merged, we had something like 60 days of cash,” said Jim McClenahan, who was the treasurer of the Northern Nevada Chamber and part of the team that structured the merger a decade ago. “We were still mired in the financial crisis. So, the first couple years were tough; businesses were struggling, the economy still hadn’t come back.”

Talks of combining the organizations reemerged a year earlier after Doug Kurkul announced his plans to leave the top executive spot of the Reno+Sparks Chamber in the fall of 2010.

The move prompted Mary Simmons and Bruce Gescheider, chairs of the Reno+Sparks Chamber in 2010 and 2011, respectively, to reach out to Len Stevens, executive director of the Northern Nevada Chamber.

Combining the chambers, Stevens felt, made sense on paper. The Northern Nevada Chamber, previously known as the Sparks Chamber before it merged with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, was seeing more and more Reno-based businesses join its organization.

When Stevens became executive director of the then-Sparks Chamber in 2002, he said the organization had about 340 members and only 10% were based outside of Sparks.

By 2006, their memberships had not only quadrupled, but 50% were outside of Sparks, and those numbers had continued to jump.

Both chambers had their philosophical differences at the time of the merger, said Len Stevens, former executive director of the Northern Nevada Chamber of Commerce who eventual became CEO of the new Reno+Sparks Chamber in 2011.


“We grew rapidly,” said Stevens, who credited his assistant at the time, Lynn Tackman, who had been with the Sparks Chamber 15 years prior to Stevens’ arrival. “Lynn and I literally went to each business and sold the memberships, which was a great thing because I got to know everybody.

“I surveyed the businesses, and the biggest thing needed was connection with other businesses — networking — and education and the nuances of running a business.”

At the time of the merger, the Reno + Sparks Chamber had about 1,500 members and operated on an annual budget of $1 million, according to an NNBW report in March 2011. The Northern Nevada Chamber had roughly 1,100 members and a $600,000 annual budget.


While both organizations wanted to grow business in the region and push the recession-riddled economy forward, the chambers were “philosophically very different,” Stevens pointed out.

“The Reno Chamber endorsed political candidates and the Sparks Chamber didn’t,” Stevens said.

What’s more, the Reno+Sparks Chamber was active in advocating for business-related positions before the state legislature and local governments and placed heavy focus on its leadership-development programs.

Meanwhile, the Northern Nevada Chamber had developed strength with small businesses and Hispanic-owned businesses. The group was especially active in holding ribbon cuttings as well as hosting social and networking events, Stevens said.

“People saw us as a chamber for small businesses,” Stevens recalled of the Northern Nevada Chamber. “And they saw Reno, being the bigger city, as the chamber for big businesses. But the truth is, we had just about as many big businesses in our chamber as the Reno chamber had, so it was just a matter of perception.”

Jim McClenahan recalled that when both chambers merged 10 years ago, many businesses were “still mired in the financial crisis” brought upon by The Great Recession.


Truth is, many Reno-Sparks businesses, big and small, belonged to both chambers. The leadership realized asking their members to pay two separate membership fees wasn’t helping the business community, which was already on shaky ground amid the recession.

“It wasn’t right for these businesses to have to belong to two chambers and attend double the events,” Stevens said.

Valerie Clark, president of Clark and Associates in Reno and a longstanding chamber member, agreed.

“We were all right in each other’s backyard and we just felt there was strength in numbers,” said Clark, who spent years on the Reno+Sparks board of directors, serving as chair in 2008. “That just made sense instead of forcing businesses to choose one chamber or join two different chambers. We felt it always made sense for there to be a larger more structured chamber that everyone could join.”

With the help of Dick Bostdorff, who was brought in as facilitator, the chamber boards worked to transition into a unified Reno+Sparks Chamber.

“We had some really great people that worked really hard,” recalled Stevens, who was tapped to be CEO of the combined chamber. “My Sparks board and the Reno chamber board worked through a lot of things to make it a compatible environment for a merger.”

This, McClenahan said, included physically turning two office environments into one. The chambers converged into a 4,500-square-foot office space in Reno’s Midtown.

But once the groups settled in and started operating as one chamber, under one roof, complications arose.

“One of the challenges is when you’re one organization, suddenly, little niches that you may have been serving, you might have to pull away from because there’s so much more to do,” said McClenahan, director of corporate relations and outreach at the University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business. “And we tried really hard to make sure we weren’t ignoring small businesses and we weren’t ignoring nonprofits (and) we weren’t ignoring Hispanic-owned businesses. So, we would have events, built around supporting those different sub-sectors in business.

Forcing businesses to choose one chamber or join two different chambers just didn’t make sense, noted Valerie Clark of Clark and Associates.


“And it made things pretty complicated for a while,” continued McClenahan, who later served as the chamber’s board chair in 2014. “But, I thought, given where we were in the economy, that it was just much more efficient to have one organization that that serve those needs.”

Added Stevens: “The biggest thing was to make sure that we were accommodating everyone and their needs and nobody in the business community felt left out.”


Ten years later, in 2021, that sentiment still rings true for the Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce.

Leading the way for the past four and a half years has been Ann Silver, who replaced Stevens after he retired from the role in December 2016, capping a 14-year tenure serving local chambers.

Silver, reminiscing on when she first took over, said her vision was to see a “much more energized” chamber full of members that were connected. She also wanted to increase the chamber’s support and promotion of the region’s businesses and industries.

That strategy has worked. When Silver took over as CEO, the chamber had about 1,000 members. As of spring 2021, membership has more than doubled, with roughly 2,300 and counting.

Along the way, the chamber dissolved its political action committee, pivoting from endorsing political candidates to asking them to support its public policy platform.

“We took some flack for a while, but it turned out to be an incredible benefit,” Silver said.

Darrell Plummer is owner of Sierra Nevada Properties, which joined the Reno+Sparks Chamber back in 1979.


In 2018, the organization merged with the Latin American Chamber. The two chambers had been combined in the past, but in 2013, the Reno+Sparks Chamber eliminated its satellite office on Wells Avenue serving Hispanic members. The merger was done to ensure Latino businesses were promoted.

A year later, in 2019, the chamber celebrated its 100th anniversary. It also moved into a new shared-office space (with the Reno-Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority) at 4065 S. Virginia St. earlier this year.

“As a chamber, I think we’re doing incredibly well,” Silver said. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to keep the professional team very small, and find really bright, energized, productive professionals who get our mission: which is to advocate on behalf of business, keep our members educated and informed, and ensure we connect them with each other.

“And we stay in that lane.”

Silver said the chamber’s mission over the next 10 years will be continuing to stay the course and growing its membership base.

“There are 17,000 businesses (in the region), so we have a very vertical hill to climb,” she added.

Silver said an important component of the chamber’s success has been the support of its partners that recognize the value of a chamber of commerce.

“We have 25 partners, and that affiliation with partners, whether they’re small businesses or banks or large companies in this community, really understand that chambers of commerce are the engine of what drives small, medium and large businesses,” Silver said.

Darrell Plummer, owner of Sierra Nevada Properties, has witnessed that engine running for decades. The real estate firm joined the chamber when his father, Hal, launched SNP in 1979.

A graduate of UNR, Plummer participated in the Reno+Sparks Chamber’s leadership class in 1989, and was recognized with the chamber’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1993.

Moreover, Plummer watched his father serve as a board chair in the ’90s. That informed his approach when he became board chair in 2019.

“The Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce has grown tremendously in members and strategic partners,” Plummer said. “The leadership of our CEO, Ann Silver, has been exactly what we needed in Northern Nevada and as a voice for our members.”


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