At their core, area chambers of commerce serve to represent the needs and interests of local business owners, Grapevine Chamber of Commerce CEO RaDonna Hessel said. But when faced with unprecedented stress on local economies, North Texas chamber and association leaders say they are in straits just as dire as those of their business constituents.

"Most people think that chambers of commerce are a part of government, and they are not," Hessel said. "We're an organization of businesses who joined together to ... market themselves and the community to be successful."

When Congress passed the CARES Act in March, it excluded 501(c)(6) organizations, such as chambers of commerce, from accessing loans and grants made available to most other small businesses, according to the American Society of Association Executives.

Chris Wallace is the president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, the regional public-private partnership between businesses, cities, education institutions and other local stakeholders. He said he is calling on North Texas' congressional representatives to include associations in the next stimulus bill.

"In recent discussions with our 15 members of Congress, we are encouraging them to include associations and chambers of commerce (501(c)(6) organizations in the next stimulus package," Wallace said in a statement. "The COVID-19 pandemic has also created financial hardships on chambers and associations, who, during this time, are busy navigating emergency aid resources for their own members."

Because chambers of commerce operate as businesses, each with their own staff, Chelsea Rose, Colleyville Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said she hopes to see 501(c)(6) organizations included in future stimulus bills.

“We are thrilled our businesses were granted access to funds so direly needed," Rose said in a statement. "[But] chambers are also businesses providing ongoing services, information, and promotion of our members who are open for business. We do look forward to chambers being included in later packages or packages in the future."

Hessel said a slimmed-down chamber staff would mean fewer resources for local business owners.

"We have ... a thousand businesses who are members, but we only have five [staffers], so each staff member has a role," Hessel said. "We are a corporation, and everything we've done ... has been based on what our businesses tell us they want us to do. So when we have to start taking things away, then, we feel like we're taking away things that companies ... have told us they want us to do."

Hessel said she expects the greatest source of financial hardship will come from the cancellations of revenue-generating events as well as from some chamber members being unable to pay their dues in the future. These stressors are exactly why chambers and associations should be included in future rounds of aid, Wallace said.

"The Commission, our chamber partners, CVB’s and other associations in our region do incredible work supporting their members and their members’ workers," Wallace said in the statement. "Membership-based associations are among the most-stressed industries during this uncertain time, and we all must support these organizations, as they are economic generators for our communities.”

Hessel said access to some of the most widely available forms of CARES Act aid, such as Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL) or the Payroll Protection Program (PPP), would make a difference. PPP loans, for example, are forgiven if business owners either retain or rehire their entire staff.

"That would be great to be able to help us," she said. "[In] any company, your No. 1 investment is going to be in your people. ... We're going to try to do everything we can to save our staff because we've got a lot of work to do.