by Pete Mazzaccaro

As the final months unwind for 2013, members of the Chestnut Hill Community Association are planning for a new year and a new emphasis on membership in the organization. CHCA president Brien Tilley is optimistic that a healthy assortment of community events and efforts to better inform the neighborhood about what the CHCA can do for them will help bolster the organization.

“It is important for us to get out to the community and earn their membership,” he said.

The renewed focus follows a slow membership decline in the organization. At last week’s meeting of the CHCA board, Membership Committee chair and CHCA operations vice president Mike Chomentowski said that the association has lost about 40 percent of its members over the course of the last 10 years. At that meeting, Chomentowski attributed the decline to the recession, lack of effort on the part of the association to retain those members and on dysfunctional organization politics.

“The picture is brighter now,” he said.

That is certainly a sentiment Tilley is interested in spreading. In particular, he thinks the sell for the membership is straightforward: An investment in the CHCA is an investment right back into the neighborhood.

“There’s a direct link between the value of the CHCA and membership fees and the value the CHCA can bring our community,” he said. “That money goes directly to supporting what we do, from our annual events to public speaking series, like the recent meetings about crime in Chestnut Hill. We want to be sure to let people know what membership does for them and to connect the dots between what we’re doing and how membership helps that happen.”

Much of what the CHCA does outside of public events is often not really seen by the community, Tilley said. A recent example was the CHCA’s intervention regarding a City Council bill that would make it much easier for people to pave their front yards to make room for driveways. Such a bill, Tilley said, was viewed pretty quickly as a legitimate threat to the historic fabric of the neighborhood.

The Executive Committee of the CHCA decided to write a letter to Councilwoman Cindy Bass. Community Manager Celeste Hardester drafted a letter right away and sent it in. Hardester heard back from Bass’ office immediately. Her office said it was going to be sure to look at the bill and make sure it wasn’t rushed through.

“Because we sent the letter, they said they decided to stop the momentum forward on the bill and look at it again,” Tilley said. “Not everyone in Council was aware of what this bill was about. It’s a good example of how the office quietly has a big impact on everybody in our neighborhood.”

Tilley said another important aspect of the message of membership is the broadening in scope of the annual events the CHCA holds. The CHCA holds many events that have been around for many years like the Pastorius Park Concert Series. Some are more recent but well established, like the Holiday House Tour and the Black and White Gala.

The big change has been to find ways to have community events that are family friendly. The recent Circle of Trees holiday celebration was family friendly. The March Hoops Madness was also a hit with families. Tilley hopes the CHCA’s Holiday Parade on Dec. 14 will be a hit, too.

“In the last 12 years, you see a lot more younger people here,” Tilley said. “If we can become an organization that continues to do those events we’re known for for adults, but we can become an organization that connects these dots for parents and kids and give those families something to do, that would be great.”

For Tilley, there’s a hope people who like these events will join the CHCA, but the bigger picture, he said, is throwing events and having speakers come to the Hill that make the neighborhood better overall.

“If these events in the short term lead to new members, great,” he said. “What is equally important is that spirit. We all benefit from events that add that vibrancy to the neighborhood.”

Finally, Tilley said, he hopes that the CHCA will be able to conduct a membership drive, something it has not done in recent years. He said part of that effort is to let people know that membership is not the same as joining the board. There many ways people can help, and there are many opportunities to volunteer.

“If you don’t have time to be a board member, that’s fine,” he said. “Support us through membership. You don’t have to be a board member to be on a committee. If you’re interested in helping with something like the Hoops Madness event or be involved on the Land Use Planning and Zoning Committee, you can.”

Once people understand that, the sales pitch is straightforward: Joining the CHCA helps the community, which in turn helps you.

“At the end of the day, I think that Chestnut Hill is a pretty special community,” Tilley said. “And the CHCA helps in that regard and makes some of the unique things we experience possible. We’re just looking for more people to make us help that happen.”

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