Facing $100,000 debt, board ponders chamber’s next move

Sean C. Morgan

The Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors will meet during the next two weeks to decide how to move forward under the financial conditions the organization currently is experiencing.

It will do so with input from members of the public and members of the chamber, some of that from two open houses held during the past two weeks at the chamber and a general membership meeting Friday, April 28, at the Community Center.

About 20 people showed up Friday to hear a summary of the chamber’s situation from President Bill Matthews and provide input.

The organization is about $100,000 in debt, Matthews said.

“On paper, selling the building is the obvious answer,” said Brian Adams, a director and a manager at Safeway,

With the chamber’s position and role in the community, members of the board didn’t believe it was their place to make that decision without input from the membership and community, Adams said. The board could have voted already and made a decision, but no one wanted to do that without input from the community – which might have provided another option.

“This meeting is the pivot point,” said Dave Jurney, treasurer.

The chamber board has reached out across social media, traditional media and open houses seeking community input in recent weeks, Matthews said.

During the meeting board members outlined the condition of the chamber’s finances and some of its recent history.

Discussion ranged across a variety of related topics, but several members of the public said the chamber should sell off its property, including the Visitor Information Center, 1575 Main St., and the empty lot located between the chamber and Speedee Mart.

Complicating that decision would be the corresponding closure of the Visitor Information Center. The chamber has an agreement with the city to operate the facility in exchange for $15,000 annually.

Matthews said he would prefer to sell the building and lease it back, which could provide a solution, but members of the public discussed whether a Visitor Information Center is relevant in the age of the Internet, Google and Yelp.

Matthews noted that the location, on Main Street across from Safeway, is ideal for connecting with visitors. He added that some 20 people had stopped at the chamber “in pouring rain,” the previous day, Thursday, to get information about Sweet Home.

The board had been unaware that the chamber did not have enough cash flow to meet its obligations until recently, he said.

At one point this year, two board members lent $1,500 each to the chamber to meet payroll expenses, Jurney said. To date, three board members have lent $6,500.

At the time, Matthews said, they believed that the proceeds from the annual awards banquet would provide the cash flow, about $8,000, they needed to continue paying for the operation.

But attendance was half of last year, and the chamber made about $500 from the event.

The chamber board eliminated its executive director position in March, immediately after the banquet. After that, Matthews said he discovered that most records, electronic and hard copies, were missing and that the chamber’s nonprofit status remained revoked, according to the IRS.

The IRS revoked the chamber’s nonprofit status in August 2014 for failing to file Forms 990 for the previous three years. The Form 990 provides financial information about nonprofit organizations, which are not required to pay federal income taxes.

Matthews said he joined the board last year, and when he became president in January, he insisted on looking at records that had not been available in the past to the board and treasurer.

Board members did not know what the chamber’s debts were, for example, he said. Those records showed a cash flow problem, triggering the decision to cut the executive director position.

The board called in Matthews’ son, a computing expert from Northern California, on a volunteer basis to try to recover electronic records, Matthews said, and board members went to work reconstructing what it could of financial records and membership records.

The chamber’s largest debts are two loans, for $25,000 used to purchase the lot between the chamber and Speedee Mart and $35,000 used for building improvements, Matthews said. The chamber owes less than $30,000 on the larger loan. Among other obligations are debts to the state and federal government for payroll expenses and The New Era for publication costs.

“We have been in touch with most of our creditors,” Matthews said. “We continue to have a dialogue with those people.”

He insisted that the chamber will meet all of its obligations one way or another, noting that the chamber has an asset.

Karla Hogan, a real estate agent with Keller Williams and member of the board, said the property is worth $165,000 to $200,000.

“Did we know about those before a month ago?” Matthews said. “No. Was there oversight of the executive director? No. There was not good oversight of the finances. For that we plead guilty. We trusted, but we did not verify.”

Had the board understood the chamber’s financial condition, it would have made different decisions, he said.

“If we go forward, we will have a strategic business plan,” Matthews said. “We’ll operate as a business. If we can’t finance our organization, nothing else really counts.”

Jurney said that financial information, down to the penny, is available for board members.

“If you see something I’m doing wrong, you’re welcome to tell me,” Jurney said. “The board is my oversight.”

Sweet Home resident Gary Jarvis suggested that the chamber add a board of trustees to its bylaws going forward to regularly audit chamber finances.

Matthews told him that the bylaws require an audit, and had it been done regularly, it would have revealed the chamber’s financial situation two years ago.

The Visitor Information Center remains open, Matthews said, thanks to several volunteers, one of whom works 12 hours per week.

The organization has $1,100 in cash, Jurney said. That’s being used to keep the lights on.

The chamber does have resources, Matthews said. It receives the $15,000, funded by transient occupancy taxes, from the city to operate the Visitor Information Center, and annual dues provide $15,000 to $20,000. The chamber also receives funding from different events, like the annual awards banquet.

“We’d like to hear from you,” Matthews said. “We have tough decisions ahead. If we don’t address these finances, we’re done.”

Real estate agent Kitsey Trewin told the board that it should sell the building. Two others echoed the sentiment.

“We may have no choice in the matter,” Matthews said while holding up a list of the chamber’s debts.

That doesn’t mean the chamber must end, Trewin said. It can operate from anywhere.

“The chamber’s not going to go away,” Jurney said. “Get out of debt, we can do a lot of things.”

The board invited past members and volunteers to get involved again.

“We want to create an environment where people want to volunteer,” said Karla Hogan, who returned to the board in January after previously serving for several years until about 2002.

For more information, call the chamber office at (541) 367-6186 or Matthews at (541) 367-1290. Matthews said that members of the public also may contact members of the board directly.

Board members attending the meeting were Graybill, senior engineering technician with the City of Sweet Home; Hogan; Adams; Matthews, who owns and operates HealthMarkets; Jurney, a retired resident; Ian Rollins, marketing and public relations coordinator with Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital; and Bill Baitinger, a retired resident. Past president Arlene Paschen has resigned.

Among the meeting attendees were state Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, city councilors Susan Coleman and Diane Gerson and City Manager Ray Towry.