New Chamber of Commerce Goes Coastal

by Leona Baker

With a niche focus on small businesses, Coastal Virginia Chamber of Commerce hopes to be a “force multiplier,” says executive director

The leadership of a new regional chamber of commerce is thinking small. Small business, that is. The Coastal Virginia Chamber of Commerce (CVCC) was established in January of 2020, the combined effort of Virginia Beach-based lawyer Gary Byler and a group of local business owners who saw the need for an organization of its type that would take a hands-on, one-on-one approach to supporting small businesses. 

According to the organization’s mission statement, its aim is to become the “go-to success network” for small businesses in our area, drawing on “significant experience at the highest levels of business, industry, government and community.” 

Former state delegate and Virginia Beach city councilman Ron Villanueva, who came on board as executive director of the CVCC last year, calls the nonprofit’s goals “ambitious” and envisions its efforts as a “force multiplier” for the success of small businesses—particularly in this critical recovery period from the pandemic. As of late May, Villanueva estimates the CVCC’s membership at 75 and describes this as a growth period for the organization, which serves the entire Coastal Virginia region including all 17 primary localities. 

“We’ve got a good niche, and we’re trying not to duplicate what the Hampton Roads Chamber or the Virginia Chamber is doing,” Villanueva says. “We’re drilling it down to more grassroots involvement and service. We are a service-oriented group. So, we know where some of the solutions are, and we are just hoping to connect everyone and make our marketplace stronger and our community better.” 

Small businesses, he notes, face unique challenges—especially when starting out or pivoting to adjust to a changing marketplace, and they need real-time solutions and practical tools to point them in the right direction: “What we found is they need better advocates and connectors with different programs, to capital, and they need more concierge-type services and attention.” 

Among the ways they hope to achieve these goals is to bring business owners together. “When you become a member, you also become a peer mentor,” Villanueva explains. “So, restaurants, for example, are in a peer network and we link them together. When the COVID event happened initially, we were one of the first organizations to link smaller regional banks with some of our members, and we walked them through the process.” 

Encouraging non-partisan civic engagement and helping businesses understand the real-world implications of elections and legislative initiatives is another central part of the organization’s mission. They’ve posted dozens of interviews with elected officials and candidates of all political persuasions on a broad range of topics, with an intended focus on civility and consensus building that can be lacking in today’s political climate.  

Collaborations with other organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce are also key to the CVCC’s networking approach, Villanueva says. They recently partnered with local African American churches for a Juneteenth event focused on promoting Black-owned businesses and connecting those businesses with resources. They’ve worked with the Union Mission and established the CVCC Global Initiative, which donates interactive globes to underserved communities throughout Coastal Virginia. 

One topic that is currently top-of-mind for many small businesses is workforce solutions, as positions go unfilled and businesses struggle to find adequate staffing. Villanueva says the CVCC is working on some short- and long-term initiatives that may help, including exploring possible options for legally employing recent migrants to the U.S., who often have in-demand skillsets and are looking for work. Villanueva, who is an advocate for criminal justice reform, also notes the importance of re-entry programs for individuals recently released from prison. 

Villanueva has been open about his own experiences following a conviction and sentencing in 2019 in a widely reported fraud case, telling WAVY 10 news in February, “It’s accountability, where you went wrong, how you move forward, and better yourself.” As he moves forward, he hopes to assist local small businesses in doing the same. 

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