It felt like a symptom of something — breakdown of old systems, sign of retail malaise — that the East Hampton Chamber of Commerce was adrift for the last few years. The last executive director returned to his hometown of Nashville in 2019, leaving in his wake lingering debate over the efficacy of street fairs and park festivals that, some business owners complained, made noise but did little to actually help their foot traffic or cash flow. After that, the chamber was something of a ghost ship, with no leader at the helm and its website un-updated. And so we cheer the news that Mary Waserstein has been appointed acting director to work alongside Barbara Layton, the chamber’s president, to revive it and steer it into brave new waters.
Ms. Waserstein, who holds a law degree, runs a “tablescapes” business and hosts a program on LTV about cooking and party-table décor. Ms. Layton, who ran Babette’s on Newtown Lane for 27 years, has long had her pulse on the state of commerce in the East Hampton Village business district. Together, they are floating the idea of expanding the chamber’s reach beyond village borders, to the broader township. Montauk already has its own highly effective chamber, of course, as does Amagansett, but we think their idea of expanding to help business people in Wainscott, Springs, and the unaffiliated but growing areas north of the village line is a good one.
Still, the newly reformed chamber will have to answer an existential question: The mission of any chamber of commerce is to promote and strengthen local business, but how can it do that at a time when locally owned businesses are fewer and farther between? Is it the job of a chamber of commerce to promote international luxury conglomerates? Steering the new chamber will take vision, but we’re buying in.
Fifty years ago, proprietors of around 150 mom-and-pops regularly attended meetings and engaged in year-round sales events, giveaways, and co-sponsored ad campaigns; they printed tourist maps and organized historical-site tours. Today, the majority of businesses in the village proper are owned by national or international firms that are far less likely to send a manager to a mixer to discuss, say, a coordinated Main Street Valentine’s Day promotion or Presidents’ Day raffle. Will the chamber shift its focus to service businesses, like landscaping or house-cleaning, that are more likely to be locally owned? Will the chamber be able to engage the conglomerates of Main Street in events or promotions that help boost foot traffic at the time of year when help is most needed, in the winter? We hope so, and the new energy is excellent. We’ll be eagerly watching to see what ideas emerge.