The Newton-Needham Regional Chamber has been quietly expanding beyond its two namesake communities. First, it took over for a defunct chamber in Watertown. This year, it did the same in Wellesley.
Now, the chamber has a new name to reflect its broader ambitions: the Charles River Regional Chamber.
The identity switch became official on Wednesday, but it has been years in the making. President Greg Reibman began toying with the idea even before the old Watertown-Belmont chamber dissolved in early 2018 and suggested that its members join Reibman’s group.
“Businesses in Watertown were never going to be enamored of joining an organization called the Newton-Needham Chamber. The same was the case in Wellesley,” Reibman said. “We just think, from an advocacy point of view, Boston’s inner western suburbs needed a stronger voice to be heard. We think it’s really critical to have a larger presence. This helps us do that.”
The name switch also reflects the growth in membership that has taken place under Reibman, a former community newspaper publisher who was well acquainted with the region’s business leaders when he took the job in 2012. Membership has essentially doubled to nearly 1,000 since that time. Few, if any, chambers of commerce in the state have seen this kind of growth: The Boston Business Journal ranked the chamber 20th in terms of size in 2013. In the newest ranking, the chamber has moved up to sixth place.
But unlike many of its peers, it no longer has a permanent physical office. Its former office at the Marshalls plaza in Newton closed to make way for a massive redevelopment. The five-person staff now works out of a Workbar shared workspace on Kendrick Street in Needham.
The Newton chamber of commerce dates back to 1915, and it merged with Needham’s in 1969.
“I recognize there is some risk [with changing the name],” Reibman said. “There is a long legacy there. But we think the regionalization makes sense.”
The Charles River was picked in part because it’s a geographic feature shared by all the chamber’s communities. The name also symbolically connects the suburbs with the cities of Boston and Cambridge, a deliberate affiliation on Reibman’s part, and reflects the history of innovation in the mill districts along the river.
“It’s an act of brilliant marketing,” said Colette Phillips, whose Boston marketing firm worked with the chamber last year to recognize 50 influential businesspeople of color in the western suburbs. “You are basically saying to all the surrounding towns, including Cambridge and Boston, anybody whose border touches the river can be a member . . . It’s more expansive and inclusive.”
A bigger and broader chamber representing the western suburbs will be particularly important for the life sciences industry as companies look for more real estate beyond the sector’s traditional home base in Cambridge, said C.A. Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Reibman put his publishing skills to use, writing a daily newsletter providing links to various resources and stories. For many business leaders, it became a must read. (He has since cut back the frequency to three times a week.) Reibman said the pandemic underscored the benefits of belonging to a chamber — that it wasn’t only about breakfasts in hotel ballrooms, hobnobbing with local bankers and real estate agents.
Seana Gaherin, co-owner of the Dunn-Gaherin’s pub in Newton Upper Falls, said the organization seemed more like the stereotypical chamber when she joined 25-plus years ago. “It was an old boys’ network where they played golf and talked about their cigars,” she said.
But under Reibman’s leadership, she said, the chamber has become far more relevant to a wider range of businesses. She cites a chamber-organized call that happens weekly, or biweekly in the summer, with dozens of restaurateurs that began during the pandemic as one example.
“We’re a voice to be reckoned with,” Gaherin said, “which is nothing like what the Newton-Needham Chamber used to be.”