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Chambers of commerce work to help rural Ozark businesses succeed and grow

In our latest segment of KSMU's Sense of Community series on "Rural Entrepreneurship in the Ozarks," hear how chambers of commerce assist local businesses in smaller communities around the region.

Willard Missouri, home to over 6,000, has a variety of businesses – some small and locally-owned and others chains -- like Taco Bell and Sonic. There are several plots of land advertising acres available to lease out to businesses eager to expand in a smaller market.

Working behind the scenes to support those businesses are local chambers of commerce. Consisting of members of the community, they advocate and support organizations through community engagement and networking opportunities. Events put on by the chambers of commerce, such as Freedom Fest each July in Willard, help boost the local economy and keep revenue in town.

Investing in small towns

Jason Knight, director of Willard Parks and Recreation and president of the Willard Area Chamber of Commerce wants to build up the tourism industry in his town by highlighting the scenic views the town offers on the Frisco Highline Trail and renovating Jackson Street Park’s play area.

“We're working on building a large, inclusive playground in our community that we're hoping will bring in people from other smaller local communities such as Ash Grove and Walnut Grove and Bolivar, and Fair Play that will travel through Willard on their way to Springfield,” said Knight. “And we're hoping to be able to use that as an attraction to bring people into the community.”

But chambers of commerce also play a role in attracting new business.

Role of large employers and politicians

While retail shops are common in small towns and important to their vitality, some also have manufacturers who typically employ a lot of people.

Tanya Watson, executive director of the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce said a focus on bringing manufacturers into town has been important for her city.

“Recently the Durham Company started up their manufacturing plant here, and they are already looking for expansion here in the coming years,” said Watson. “We are excited about that. Our economic development director is working with the Manufacturing Association. We also work with our Dallas County Technical Center with internships.”

According to the U.S Department of Labor Statistics, in 2023 the manufacturing industry created an average of 3,000 jobs per month vs the 33,000 per month in 2022. Not only does that keep residents in a town where they support locally-owned businesses, it also attracts people to a city.

Watson said it’s also important to have a good relationship with politicians who represent the city.

“We have a great working relationship with our senator and state representative,” said Watson. “And just trying to make sure that we talk to people and let them know that we're here and that we have spaces available and people that want jobs.”

As of 2021, Dallas County, home to Buffalo, had 293 total establishments, according to

And Watson hopes her town continues to grow. But she said that can be a challenge for a smaller community.

“State funding programs can be kind of difficult in smaller communities because they do require, you know, matching funds, and sometimes those are rather large,” said Watson. “And it can be difficult, but we are trying to be more thoughtful about our growth and our infrastructure and working towards what we can do on our part so that when we're ready, we can have those things in place to connect with the state.”

Challenges and rewards of doing business in a small town

In Aurora, Missouri, which has a population of just over 7,000 and is located in Lawrence County, the chamber of commerce is working to make sure businesses there can work together to succeed.

According to its website, “the Aurora Area Chamber of Commerce’s strength lies in attracting the greatest number of businesses and individuals into membership, creating a pool of resources from which to draw ideas, energy and finances.”

As with any chamber of commerce, businesses and individuals pay membership fees to be part of that effort.

Shannon Walker, executive director of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce said, while a smaller customer pool can be one of the challenges of operating a business in a small town, it’s that smaller customer pool that also can be a benefit.

“So, some of the challenge may be your customer base, and so your customers, a lot of times, are repeat customers,” said Walker. “And being able to get the information to folks in other small communities around us -- sometimes can be challenging. But then on the flip side of that, you can walk into a small business that you frequent quite often, and they know you by name. They know what you like. So, having that personal contact with the business owner and the employees, it makes it very, very nice.”

Running a local chamber of commerce can sometimes be a struggle

Smaller chambers of commerce like one in Hickory County near Pomme De Terre Lake, sometimes struggle to carry out their mission. Anita Mertz president of the Pomme de Terre Chamber of Commerce in Wheatland, which is home to just under 300 people, said they are desperate for funding right now to hire a director. She said she wishes the state could allocate funds so they can fill that position.

“Right now we have 168 chamber members in this area. That's local businesses. We cannot afford to hire a director,” said Mertz. “We are in desperate need of being able to pay someone and it's been very difficult for us to keep our head above water. I would like some sort of funding for to hire a director to help run our chamber. That's what I would like to see because we're all volunteers and we all work our tails off and you get burnout pretty fast.”

While Mertz is grateful for the town’s many entrepreneurs and what they do for the area, she said she wishes larger companies would come into town as well.

“Right now I wish we could get some bigger chains,” said Mertz. “We have a very small area, most of our businesses are locally owned. I would like to see a fast food restaurant -- something to make it more convenient for the people that do live here.”

Mertz said convenience is one of the biggest challenges for people who live in small towns. For example, the next town over from Wheatland is about 30 minutes away, so if there’s something Wheatland doesn’t have, area residents have to drive to get it. But that distance also means less competition for businesses that open shop there.