Written by: Allie Jones, on behalf of AEDC
Our chambers of commerce are one of the major driving forces of economic success and support for our local business community. From networking opportunities to educational workshops, legislative advocacy to marketing support, these organizations are an essential part of getting connected and growing your business in Humboldt.
While this has been the case for decades, our chambers have never been more important than this past year. In the midst of the onslaught of curveballs and the continually changing definition of “business as usual,” our chambers have truly been beacons of support.
Did you know that we have dynamic, talented women leading each of our local chambers of commerce? From Southern Humboldt to Del Norte County, it’s women at the helm of promoting our local businesses and guiding entrepreneurs through this challenging time. Dozens of local establishments have been able to keep their doors open, and even thrive, because of the work they are doing.
I had a chance to chat with a few of these powerhouse women—to hear their perspective of how our community has responded to the challenges we’ve faced over the last year, and how their chambers have played a role in helping our community move forward.
Here are some of the highlights from my conversation with Leann Greene, Executive Director of the Southern Humboldt Chamber of Commerce, Donna Wright, CEO of The Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce, Molly Steele, Executive Director of the Arcata Chamber of Commerce, Jesse Miles, Executive Director of the McKinleyville Chamber of Commerce, and Cindy Vosburg, Executive Director of the Crescent City/Del Norte Chamber of Commerce.
How did your chamber respond to the pandemic in the early days?
Leann: Our office was closed from mid-March until May 1, and the focus was on getting out information about resources to our membership and community. We continue to do that work, almost a year later. We focus on directing our members to the North Coast SBDC and local banking institutions to get the financial and business support they need.
Molly: In the Arcata Chamber, people-to-people relationships have always been our superpower. When COVID started, we asked how we could keep this component going, even as we needed to shelter in place. Those early days were so isolating for many business owners, so we started Chamber Chats. Every week, we’d interview business owners on how they were pivoting their businesses. It was not only an opportunity to highlight their hard work, but it also created a forum where people could have a conversation. These have been so instrumental in helping us stay connected.
Jesse: In the early days, people needed information. Business owners were running in a million different directions and didn’t have time to research all the financial aid or ideas for how to pivot. I was able to take the time to gather all that information, to be a sponge for all these different calls and webinars. If and when people had questions, I could direct people to the help that was available. I could condense the information and send that to our members. I was able to call specific members to let them know about certain updates I knew they would benefit from.
Donna: In 2019, our chamber had received a federal grant to hire support for our flex workspace, Business HQ. As we had to shut our office down, we pivoted to use our staff where there was the biggest need—helping our businesses to survive and thrive. We noticed a lot of our businesses were paralyzed by a lack of digital presence, so we utilized our talented staff to help local businesses spread their messages and updates digitally. Not only did we use our broad reach through our digital platforms, but we also helped businesses create their own graphics and content while they were developing their e-commerce platforms.
Cindy: During the early days of the pandemic our chamber members were getting so many different messages from the government on what was expected of them to continue to do business, we saw a great need to partner with our local health department, city, county, workforce center, financial expert and SBDC in order to provide clear direction. We established a local task force group called the Economic Resiliency Task Force. We set up various webinars which addressed, by business type, everything from what signage they needed to post to what reopening plans should look like. In the first weeks of the pandemic, we held eight informative webinars and met with over 168 businesses.
What have been some of the unexpected benefits of this past year?
Cindy: As with all of our North Coast region, tourism is a critical driver for our economic foundation. Due to Covid, we were not able to host the huge 4th of July Celebration in Crescent City in 2020 which hurt greatly our lodging, restaurants, and other small businesses. However, by being creative and turning our second largest event each year, Sea Cruise, into an Outdoor Museum we were able to get permission to go forward with the event. Sea Cruise Outdoor Museum was a huge success where we safely brought together hundreds of participants, wearing masks and socially distancing, into our community in the month of October. We focused strongly on keeping everyone as safe as we could while still celebrating before the onset of winter.
Donna: Our businesses have realized that there’s a market beyond our Redwood Curtain. Many businesses had put their e-commerce goals on the back burner, but COVID pushed many to get online like never before. Our chamber can offer essential support in that transition. We’re striving to create a hands-on e-commerce training center that will help businesses flourish like never before.
Jesse: I love seeing the mindset shift in our community to truly support local businesses. I see more and more people truly stopping before they make another mindless Amazon purchase to think—where could I buy this locally? One lady I know made a pact with her family for Christmas to only buy locally-made gifts. I hear other people pausing to think through how the items on their shopping list could actually support a chamber member or a business that supports their kid’s soccer team. I realize that sometimes this means spending a few extra dollars or a little less convenience, and that’s not always possible for everyone. But I love seeing people spend in ways that are better for the community in the long run.
Molly: Our programs used to be more geared towards members. But since we’ve moved virtual, we’ve invited everyone and removed the fees to attend. We’re using our services to connect to a broader community. Everyone needs the support right now, and if they can’t be a member right now, that’s ok. Right now, people throughout our community are more accessible. We’re all needing help and support and we’re all open to supporting each other—the whole community.
Leann: Our merchant members have been amazingly resilient and tenacious! For example, Flavors Coffeehouse has managed to stay open as a result of the resources forwarded to the owner from our office. Many business owners took this year to reconsider their priorities. Some businesses closed because it was the right time for the owner to retire. At the same time, we had some new businesses come into town in 2020, and we look forward to opening more in 2021.
How have you been able to form new collaborative relationships during this past year?
Molly: I feel like we have a great network of support throughout our county, and I feel very lucky to have such awesome colleagues. For example, the chamber has been increasing our involvement with Equity Arcata, and we’re really excited about that. Part of our mission statement speaks to being a diverse organization promoting a strong sense of community, and this year, we’ve been doing a lot of learning about what that could look like to better support diverse and BIPOC-owned businesses.
Jesse: I don’t think our community has ever been this connected. Shifting to a more virtual space puts everyone on the same page. We’re all going through the same thing, whether you’ve been in this for thirty years or you’re brand new. Throughout our county and even throughout the region and country, I have been able to collaborate with other leaders to better support our businesses here in McKinleyville. As life gets back to looking a little more normal, I hope we can keep up this outstanding collaboration.
Cindy: We have always served the business community in Del Norte County regardless of whether or not they are a member. We believe in times like this, we need to be their support, part of their team without being on their payroll. After Covid, we will do membership drives and such but for now, we want to help everyone we can stay in business.
Leann: I would like to give credit to our CERC marketing sub-committee which fostered the #choosehumboldt campaign and added increased social media traffic for many Humboldt businesses. The campaign has really helped educate our communities as to how important, especially now, it is to shop locally.
Donna: I truly believe we are stronger together. Each of our different chamber organizations covers different needs. As the different leaders in our community have come together to respond to this crisis, we’ve been able to carry out a unified message and broaden our reach.
What are some of the biggest lessons or themes you’ve taken away from this past year?
Donna: When we focus on championing our businesses, we’re doing our job well. In spite of the abnormal year we had last year, we had unprecedented member retention, and our chamber even grew by 67 members! This is extraordinary when you consider that a CalChamber study showed that 20-25% of members don’t renew their membership annually. And if you know me, you know I won’t ever stop working hard to be a catalyst for business growth in our community.
Molly: This past year has made us more aware of how much we love this place and support these businesses truly make Arcata a great place to call home. At our annual gala event, we always announce our Business Leadership Awards. This tradition has always been really special, and it was more important than ever that we continue to honor those leaders in our community this year, even though we won’t be having our in-person event.
Jesse: Well, I stepped into my role as executive director just a few months before COVID hit. I had to dive right in and pivot into a role I was just getting familiar with. I’m so grateful for the amazing leadership and collaboration of our board. They have been super supportive and community-minded. And the relationships I’ve been able to build because of this season have outstanding.
Leann: I also joined as the Executive Director in May of 2020. I continued the work that our previous ED, Jenny Early, was doing to support our members. The Southern Humboldt Chamber of Commerce has worked tirelessly for 80 years to support our members and encourage tourism. We have weathered the ups and downs of economic downturns and boom times. We will persevere, adjust and grow to meet the needs of our membership, community, and visitors.
Cindy: There is joy in every day, just opening up to the wonderful, precious moments that occur helps keep me motivated and at peace within myself. Having a great board of directors and co-workers to work with and wonderful partnerships with neighboring counties such as Humboldt, Mendocino, and Lake makes it easier to find that joy.
If you haven’t been plugged into the chamber in your community, you’re missing out. The challenges our businesses will continue to face as we climb out of this pandemic are much easier to face with a network of support and resources. Reach out to the chamber closest to your business, start following them on social media, and join in on their next chamber event!