Chamber makeover in progress

Sean C. Morgan

Financial problems that have forced the Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce executive director to work without pay for the last month are being corrected and the chamber is rapidly getting back on track, board Chairman Lerena Ruby said last week.

Ruby said the chamber, which has seen various comings and goings on its board over the last few years, is doing “some serious restructuring” and making “better long-term plans” to strengthen its financial situation.

“We had a lack of funds about a month ago,” she said.

Ruby didn’t specify what led to the shortfall, but blamed the economy in general.

“I think mostly the problems right now are just economic tough times,” she said.

The chamber hasn’t lost too many members, with a total of 164 currently, though some businesses have cut staff, which means they are paying less dues. Ruby noted that when she joined the chamber board six years ago, the organization had 70 members.

Over the last several weeks the organization has been run on an entirely volunteer basis, led by “Chief Volunteer” Andrea Culy, the executive director.

“Actually, we’ve gotten pretty aggressive,” Ruby said, noting that sales of a coupon book that was put together as a fund-raiser for the chamber have gone well. Also, she said, the chamber is expected to receive a yet-undetermined portion of the city’s bed tax in tourism dollars when the City Council approves the 2011-12 fiscal budget.

“We’ll be back on track,” she said, predicting that Culy will be getting paychecks within a couple of weeks.

She also noted that the volunteer corps at the chamber is “very competent right now, which is very nice.”

She said SHEDG Economic Development Director Brian Hoffman, a former chamber manager himself, has “been very helpful. He’s got good advice for us.”

Newcomers to the board, who have filled vacancies, have also helped, Ruby said.

“We have several new board members who are strong and dedicated people,” who are helping to create policies and proceedings governing the chamber’s contractural obligations and employees.

Also, the board is working on recruiting new members, not just relying on Culy to do so, she said.

Hoffman said he is a member of the chamber Finance Committee, along with two board members, Diane Gerson, retired school administrator, and Michael Hall, a longtime restaurant manager and owner.

Hoffman said the committee is working to establish policies and procedures that will strengthen the chamber’s internal infrastructure and “add increased value for chamber members.” He said they are creating a strategic plan that will spell out “where we want to be in three years.

“This isn’t just a project for the board,” he said. “I think the entire membership is going to be instrumental in restructuring the chamber.”

Ruby said people need to remember how the organization has improved over the past five or six years, including better communication with its members and the community – particularly its Website and Timbergram newsletter, increased participation with other communities and chambers, consistent office hours, better service to tourists and those looking to relocate, and improved building and lawn maintenance.

“We’ve taken three steps forward and one step backward,” she said.