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Councilors decide to give chamber funding further discussion


July 18, 2017

The Sweet Home City Council will discuss whether to provide $15,000 in funding to the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center at a work session at a time yet to be determined.

The city has annually paid the chamber from revenue derived from the city’s transient occupancy tax to pay for the Visitor Information Center. During the May budget process, Budget Committee members discussed whether to continue the program or to use the money another way. The committee remained undecided on the question, leaving it to the City Council to consider the agreement with the chamber.

The council’s Administration, Finance and Property Committee discussed the funding during its regular meeting on July 11. Chamber President Bill Matthews presented a new proposed agreement to the committee, which is made up of councilors James Goble, who is chairman, Dave Trask and Diane Gerson.

“This agreement is a continuation of the agreement we’ve had in the past,” Matthews said. “It’s more detailed than it has been in the past.”

The agreement outlines how the chamber operates the Visitor Information Center, located at 1575 Main St.

“I know that during the budgeting process that there were comments to how in tune the chamber is with social media,” Matthews said. The chamber has board members and volunteers who have been improving its presence on social media and they have kept the chamber’s website updated, and the chamber has been capturing the electronic element as well as walk-in traffic.

Volunteer Michele Carter told the committee that the chamber had just 48 page views in April. This month, its highest number of page views reached 7,700 after “adding content and engaging the community.”

The website is connected and updated when the city updates its site, she said, helping point people to forms and information they need and seek

With the discovery that it was $100,000 in debt, the chamber’s future has been uncertain, but the chamber is finalizing the sale of its property, Matthews said.

That will allow the chamber to pay its obligations and provide funds to continue operating – and will allow the organization to stay at its current location. The new building owner will begin operating a business in the same building, he said.

“Looking forward, nothing will change from the physical point of view,” Matthews said. The chamber will be able to continue to operate the Visitor Information Center.

Goble asked if the chamber’s websites and social media will contain information about the local lakes.

Matthews said it would, and it will provide much more information.

“We hope to include videos that portray our community, not just our paying members,” Matthews said. The chamber will have a section on its website for members, and he hopes that businesses will see a benefit to becoming paying members.

Trask asked how much businesses pay for membership. Matthews said membership costs $150. Associates pay $85, and individuals pay $50.

As the chamber builds, it plans to maintain the rates, Matthews said. Down the road, they could increase as services expand.

Trask said he has an issue with cars on jack stands in the chamber parking lot, with wheels and tires off the vehicles, related to a tenant business. He doesn’t think it reflects well on the community.

Matthews agreed.

Chamber officials are sensitive to that, and that tenant is required to keep the business inside the garage, he said. “The new owners may have something to say about that. We see the new owners are going to be enhancing that place.”

“These are great buyers,” said Karla Hogan, a member of the chamber board and a local real estate agent. “You couldn’t ask for better buyers.”

As of press time, the chamber had not reported the identity of the buyer or the finalization of the sale.

Gerson asked Matthews what the chamber would do if the city didn’t give the $15,000 to the chamber.

The chamber wouldn’t be open on Saturday, he said. It might open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week to facilitate its membership.

Trask asked if the chamber planned to hire a new director at this point.

Matthews said the chamber would continue to operate on a volunteer basis, and it wouldn’t soon hire a new director.

“It’ll be a slow build,” he said. At some point, the organization could hire a part-time bookkeeper.

Goble asked whether the city would be held to the contract if the city feels that the chamber is not operating the Visitor Information Center in a competent, efficient satisfactory manner.

“It depends on how contentious you’re willing to be,” said City Manager Ray Towry. He said criteria described by words such as “competent, efficient and satisfactory” can be “vague,” subjective.

Matthews said that Councilor Susan Coleman has been invited to be part of the chamber’s meetings, and going forward, the chamber invites the council and the press to look at the chamber’s business.

The chamber also is willing to take comments and suggestions, he said. The chamber is inviting the community to evaluate it. Evaluation should be continual, “very differently from how we’ve operated the last three years.”

Goble said his main concern is how the $15,000 is allocated.

Gerson asked whether the chamber is willing to split up the payment over time.

“Let’s go for it,” Matthews said.

“I find it difficult to spend taxpayer money on a chance you might not be in business in six months or a year,” Trask said. To spend the money and for the chamber to fail is a failure on his part. “It’s a concern I’ve had with the chamber for a long time now. Until I can see those results, I’m really hesitant to give up $15,000.

“I’m not against the chamber. I’m really not.”

“That’s the thing we have to get in everybody’s mind,” Matthews said. “It’s a new chamber. It’s a whole new business model.”

At this point, costs are low, and the chamber will have no debt after the sale is final, Matthews said, describing financial failure as “inconceivable.”

“You have to put the past behind you,” he said. “The community needs what we’ve got and what we’re going to be.”

Those benefits to the community are something the city should invest in and promote, he said.

Trask noted how beneficial chambers can be. When he and his family went to Orlando, Fla., the family contacted the Orlando chamber for information about the area. That chamber sent a packet of information. The same thing went for St. Louis, Mo.

Matthews wants to see the chamber’s economic development component working with the city’s, he said.

“We’re volunteers that believe in our city,” he said. “We want you to help us be a change agent in this community.”

As time for the committee wound down prior to the regular City Council meeting, Mayor Greg Mahler arrived and suggested finishing the discussion at another meeting.

Trask said he would like the council to vote on this and suggested the council schedule a work session to discuss it as a full group. Goble and Gerson agreed.


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