Council may fund chamber – with terms

Sean C. Morgan

Following a discussion last week about whether to pay the Chamber of Commerce $15,000 to continue operating the community’s Visitor Information Center, City Manager Ray Towry said he would draft a contract to reflect the council’s consensus about the funding.

City Councilors met with chamber officials in a work session on Aug. 8 to discuss the funding.

“I think I’ve got a good sense what the council would like to see in a contract,” Towry said.

First would be a quarterly or semiannual payment and a requirement for reporting data about visitor traffic and use of the Visitor Information Center.

The city continued to budget $15,000 for the Chamber of Commerce in the spring, but with the chamber’s financial difficulties earlier this year, some Budget Committee members were concerned about accountability and whether a Visitor Information Center is relevant in context of modern information technology.

Under the ongoing arrangement, in exchange for the $15,000, the chamber is contracted to staff a Visitor Information Center 39 hours per week.

Councilor Susan Coleman, who is the council’s liaison to the chamber, said that works out to a cost of $9 per hour to operate the Visitor Information Center, which provides information to visitors and people who are considering moving to the area by phone or in person at the center, 1575 Main St.

“Nine dollars an hour is not much to run a visitor’s center,” Coleman said.

The chamber has sold its building to Anthony and Michelle Larson and has been able to start paying off approximately $100,000 in outstanding debts and obligations.

Matthews said the chamber will be debt-free soon.

Mayor Greg Mahler said he is looking at the future.

“In my opinion, the center of Sweet Home is going to be where the new City Hall is,” Mahler said. That’s where growth is heading, and the Visitor Information Center may be better located there.

“Eventually, City Hall is going to be a nice facility.”

That’s one reason, chamber President Bill Matthews said, that the chamber has worked out a short-term lease to continue to use its present location. The lease will last through the end of 2018.

“What have you done to protect our investment?” asked Councilor Lisa Gourley. “What are you going to do to keep this from happening again?”

Matthews said the chamber has not violated its contract with the city and has met its obligation to the city, continuing to operate the Visitor Information Center before and after its financial crisis came to a head early this year.

Since then, it has remained staffed with knowledgeable volunteers, he said. The chamber’s difficulties have been in other functions.

“We’re in the process rewriting the bylaws,” Matthews said. The direction of the chamber is changing from a staff-driven organization to a board-driven organization. The board is developing a strategic business plan, and the board as well as Coleman have access to financial records.

“We have no objection to accountability,” Matthews said.

Chamber Treasurer Dave Jurney can show where every single penny is, he said.

“In the past, that was a big mystery.”

Jurney said he would like to know what the chamber will be held accountable for, specifically, in the future, what information the council will want and what its expectations are.

Chamber volunteer Michele Carter told the council “it’s pretty hopping” at the Visitor Information Center. She estimated that the center handles 10 to 15 visitors a day by phone or in person.

Matthews said it could be swamped on a Tuesday and slow on Saturdays – that there’s no rhyme or reason to when the center is busy.

“I think we need to give some leeway to the chamber,” Mahler said. The chamber has had a leg iron attached to it.

Coleman supported the funding, saying that the chamber is heading in the right direction, and the city is bringing on a new economic development director.

She noted that she doesn’t know any city the size of Sweet Home that doesn’t run without a chamber’s assistance.

Councilor Dave Trask said one of his biggest concerns is the appearance of the building. He doesn’t like seeing the auto mechanic working on cars in the parking lot.

“The sight of a car jacked up is not pleasing to me,” Trask said.

Matthews agreed with Trask about appearances.

“I’m thinking their expectations are higher than ours,” he said of the new owner of the building. He pledged that the chamber would do its best to keep the facilities neat and clean and noted the new owner is planning to operate a business inside the building alongside the chamber.

Trask added that he “can’t get past the past. In my mind, there was no accountability – Nor can you guarantee (the chamber) will be in better shape a year from now.”

For that reason, Trask asked whether the chamber would accept the $15,000 broken up into quarterly payments. Mahler said he was interested in a quarterly payment too.

Matthews said the chamber had already indicated it would.

“I have faith in you,” Gourley said. If she agrees to fund the chamber’s Visitor Information Center, it’s because Matthews is there, but she has to ask the questions, looking out for the interests of the public she represents.

Looking at the past is part of life, said Brian Adams, a chamber board member.

“You also have to look at the recent past.”

That’s a past that includes the chamber meeting its obligations, he said. The chamber has made big strides in the past eight months.

“Every day we continue as a board, this chamber gets stronger,” Adams said. To go through everything this board has “only to fold up shop is, frankly, laughable.”

“We put $15,000 in our budget for the chamber,” Trask said. “I will stand by that. It’s not that we didn’t support the chamber.

“I want to know what the chamber’s going to do for the tourist portion,” said Councilor James Goble. “I asked for data. I haven’t seen any data.”

He asked how many information packets have gone out to people interested in Sweet Home. He wanted to know whether the chamber will point visitors only to member businesses or every little business in Sweet Home.

The funding for the Information Center comes originally from the transient occupancy tax.

“In my world, I want to promote tourism and people here,” Goble said. Recognizing that the chamber has functions that apply only to its members, that particular money should be used to support everyone not just chamber members. Kiosks at each end of town would benefit everybody.

Goble said he finds “vague” the proposed contract, which had been rewritten and better detailed from its previous form by Matthews. It doesn’t really lay out what is expected of the chamber.

Matthews said that most informational materials are supplied by the U.S. Forest Service and State of Oregon.

The Visitor’s Guide publication is paid for by members of the organization, Matthews said.

“But the vast majority of information is not member-specific. It’s area-specific.”

The money from the city is primarily used to pay office expenses, Matthews said. In the past, it was used to pay the mortgage. In the future, it will be used for lease payments.

The overhead is about $30,000 per year, he said, stating that the city’s $15,000 is a good investment.

Matthews said he is glad to provide data about what the chamber does on a quarterly or semiannual basis.