Editorial: Solutions to chamber woes must come from community

It’s evident that our Chamber of Commerce is on the ropes.

It’s no secret to anyone involved in Sweet Home public life that the chamber has struggled for years. We’ve reported various ups and downs and we’ve been told that things were improving.

They weren’t, as has become apparent.

Now Sweet Home’s businesses and public-minded citizens must decide what they want to do about it.

A chamber of commerce is, first and foremost, a cooperative venture. It is an organization of citizens who invest time and money in efforts to improve the economic, civic and cultural wellbeing of the community. It acts as a spokesman for the business and professional community. It renders services to the community and its residents.

In Sweet Home’s case, the chamber has served as the visitors center for the community, dispensing literature and advice to tourists and new residents. It has also provided a forum for local residents and business people to interact, which is critical to building community. It has also, in recent years, provided opportunities for business education and for local craftspeople to display and sell their wares.

As is true of any business or organization, the personality and accomplishments of a chamber is dependent on who’s involved – its staff, its board and its members, not necessarily in that order. If people don’t contribute in a positive way, things aren’t going to go well.

Current board members should be recognized and appreciated for contributions of significant time, money and effort to addressing the problems they’ve uncovered in the past month: debt in the neighborhood of $100,000, a lack of records that have forced them to invest many hours in contact with banks and government agencies, continued visitor traffic that requires volunteers to staff the chamber office – a true Pandora’s box.

This board of directors has courageously bared all – or as much as it can – publicly. They are answering questions. They’ve told given us, the public, financial information, the size of the debts, revenues and even how much cash on hand the chamber has available.

The question now, of course, is how to address those answers. It was clear from the meeting on Friday night (see page 1) that current board members, who bring considerable business experience to the table, know the easiest solution to the money problems is to sell the property the chamber owns.

A lot was said Friday about the chamber winning back the trust of the community.

That may be the wrong way to look at things at this point. The chamber is already doing what it needs to do to win back our trust.

Although its primary duty is to its membership, it is a part of the community and we pay it city tax revenue to provide services for us, which means that it does have a responsibility to the public, the community.

The board has painted an ugly picture publicly without shrinking from its duty or skirting the negative information. This board doesn’t shrink from taking responsibility for its lack of oversight. That should earn our trust.

The chamber has struggled for years. Somewhere along the way, the situation was bad enough that the organization lost its nonprofit status. That was in 2014, before most of the board or recent staff members were even involved in the chamber operation.

Hindsight is always 20-20 and it’s easy to look back now and see places where all of us should have asked more probing questions. Board members’ abrupt resignations should have triggered red flags. Issues should have been confronted.

A lot of very decent people have served on the board during preceding years, but the operation has not worked correctly – that’s become very clear.

Today’s board, all unpaid volunteers, largely inherited a simmering mess that most have not contributed to at all.

Right now, though, it doesn’t matter where the blame lies. Our chamber has serious problems, and the community is going to have to decide real quick what’s next.

Sweet Home really needs a chamber, but there has to be participation for it to exist, let alone thrive.

Down the road in Brownsville, a town a sixth the size of Sweet Home, and which is also a bedroom community, the turnout for chamber events is usually double or triple what Sweet Home’s typically has been.

Lebanon’s chamber is booming, as anyone who’s visited any of its events – community forums, numerous get-together opportunities, or its recent Biz Expo, can attest. There’s plenty of enthusiastic participation in both of those communities.

Sweet Home has strengths. We rival or even outshine any of our neighbors when it comes time to help someone in need or take care of a community project. We’re good in a crisis, getting together and fixing a problem, whether it be a tree falling on somebody’s house or stepping up to save the Boys & Girls Club.

But day-to-day commitment seems to be a challenge, at least with regard to our chamber.

Well, we have a crisis now.

As a community, we need to decide whether we want a chamber and, if we do, what we want from it.

Maybe the current chamber model is outmoded. Whether the chamber survives in its current form, shuts down or emerges in some other form, sells its property or keeps it, continues or stops providing Visitor Information Center services, we will have to roll with the outcome.

Unless somebody steps up with some big financial aid, the most logical course of action for the chamber board would be to sell the property and pay off its debts.

That would give it a clean financial slate and hopefully leave the chamber with some cash to get things rolling again.

Meanwhile, though, we need to decide if we want to cooperate in improving our community.

If we want a chamber, we need a core group of people, beyond just the board members, who are committed to finding a way to make this thing work.

We might want to take some lessons from our neighbors, who have figured it out. We might want to take care to avoid territorial factionalism that can quickly divide up a community like ours. We might want to start from scratch. We might want to quiz some of those capable board members who’ve left the chamber behind.

As we said up front, we think the chamber can and should play a critical role in Sweet Home’s growth, not just economically but in other ways. It’s a center of the community in most other towns, even those smaller than ours. In those communities, it fulfills all or most of the criteria we mentioned up front.

But we have to determine that we’re going to get involved – and stay involved. We all need to have a stake in this.

Because that’s what it takes to make a chamber.