Most everyone who has been around the block a couple of times, knows of a couple who have been together for many years whose marriage ends after the kids have grown up, and the pair splits up as they find there is little left in common.
A similar situation has transpired in Concord between its Chamber of Commerce (CoC) and a group of small independent businesses that historically have supported them. After years of estrangement where these entities have felt the Chamber has not fully represented their interests, a group of business owners have joined forces to start their own association.
Recently, The Concord Small Business Association (CSBA) met for its second meeting. Most of the companies present had fewer than 10 employees on their local pay roll. Also present were a couple of concerned City Council members. Several attendees expressed problems with parking near their businesses, signage regulations, permit applications, dealings with the police department, and in general with services provided by the city.
Supporters of CSMA explained that the organization is important because they believe business owners need more of a voice in advocating their concerns with their treatment by the City of Concord. This is especially true, they say, because private enterprise is being asked to do more to provide services such as sponsoring entertainment at Todos Santos and paying for costs associated with the 4th of July parade; in the absence of redevelopment funds which once subsided many of these and other events.
Apparently, the CoC in recent years has not been able to completely do the job according to those affiliated with the CSBA. With many prominent citizens in agreement, it must be asked where did the Chamber lose support from many of its constituents?
Many trace this change in the organization to when it fired popular Executive Director Keith McMahon in 2009, for budgetary reasons and never replaced him. As a result, the Chamber has tended to avoid hot button issues and relegate itself to lesser tasks.
This has resulted in the Chamber not paying as much attention to government regulations and tax issues at a time when small businesses have struggled in a sluggish economy. There has also been a tendency of the Chamber to focus on social interaction between members as opposed to being an activist organization pushing a pro business agenda. This has been especially true on the local level in dealing with the City of Concord.
During the absence of an Executive Director the Concord Chamber has done its best to steer a middle of the road course and not alienate anyone. The result is a collection of coffee klatches, “green initiatives”, as well as monthly mixers and joint functions with other local Chambers that more resemble the Lions and Rotary Clubs than being an advocate for business.
While admitting some failings in the past, the CoC vigorously disputes such a negative assessment. Recently, over coffee at Panama Red, past Executive Board Chairman and current Chair of the Governmental Affairs and Economic Development Committee Ken Dami, along with Chief Operations Officer Marilyn Fowler, and current Executive Board Chairman Larry Sly, all challenged the Chamber having a diminished role in representing its members.
Ken Dami, a well respected community leader, who currently serves as the External Affairs Representative of Tesoro, cited the recent reorganization of his committee that has added a Standing Ad Hoc committee on Economic Policy that meets once a month in closed session to deal with specific problems members have with city departments.
He said this special group was started last September and is composed of members from Governmental Affairs which includes four representatives from large corporations, four non-profits, and one small business.
Marilyn Fowler also pointed out that she has now scheduled regular meetings with acting City Manager Valerie Barone, to discuss issues relating to small business owners. Larry Sly, who also is the Executive Director of the Contra Costa & Solano Food Bank, expressed his concern and that of the board with the Chamber meeting its members’ expectations.
These steps by the CoC would appear to be a breath of fresh air to the organization but it is still faced with a similar situation to a popular restaurant that has lost many of its patrons after replacing its chef with a short order cook who lacks the expertise to properly execute the menu. In this case the Chamber has found it difficult to bring in enough revenue to pay for the staff needed to fulfill their mission.
In this vein, if the Concord Chamber is to regain the respect and support of the small business community it should consider striving to:
1. Refocus its committment to being an advocate for business. If this means opposing some of the liberal agenda of the State Legislature, (and costs associated with enforcement), than so be it.
2. While the paid staff of the Chamber has done an admirable job running the organization, it must find a way to hire an Executive Director to steer a pro-business agenda.
3. The Chamber Executive Board needs to formulate policies that reflect the pro-business values of the State Chamber that the majority of its members support.
4. More meaningful input on the local level with City Government where the Chamber holds its greatest influence.
As this analysis amply demonstrates, discussing the Concord Chamber and its future course is a complicated task that seems to pose more questions than potential solutions. In the meantime, a healthy dialogue of these issues is important for charting the Chamber’s future role in the business community.
Hopefully, the Concord chamber will regain its “Mojo” that seems to have been, “Lost in Translation”. Until then and beyond, we can expect the CSBA and others to stand tall in protecting small businesses and the jobs they create in the community.