Clark County cuts funds for local chambers

Financial blow is small, but groups' leaders see action as a rebuff

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian business editor

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Several Clark County chambers of commerce received unexpected holiday greetings Tuesday in the form of a letter from Clark County Administrator Mark McCauley, who informed the chambers that the county was not going to give them any money in 2014.

The financial blow to the Vancouver, Camas, Woodland and Battle Ground chambers is small, amounting at most to just over $5,000 in total. But it's also a small expenditure for the county, and chamber leaders are reacting with both confusion and anger over what they perceive as a rebuff.

To Kelly Parker, executive director of the 1,040-member Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, the message signaled a total lack of understanding for her organization's work on behalf of small businesses.

"It's $1,500 for us, so it's not like it's $50,000 or anything," she said, noting the chamber operates with a $350,000 annual budget. "But for the county to withdraw support for the work the chamber is doing seems to contradict what the county says it supports, which is small businesses."

The reaction was similar at the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, which had received about $1,100 this year from the county.

"I'm taken aback," said Brent Erickson, the chamber's executive director. McCauley's one-paragraph letter gave "very little reason" as to the purpose of the county's decision, he said.

In that letter dated Dec. 13, McCauley says the county commission had decided to withdraw funding for chambers during 2014. "Chambers provide valuable service to their members and this decision to withdraw is not based on any diminution of perspective on behalf of the Board," he wrote. "Rather, the county is seeking to achieve a more limited focus in its funded projects and programs."

Some issues remained unclear on Tuesday. Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Battle Ground Chamber of Commerce, said she did not receive McCauley's letter because her chamber does not currently receive funding from Clark County. But Axel Swanson, the county's senior policy analyst, said the county paid $685 to the Battle Ground Chamber this year.

Another question mark surrounds the county's payments to the Woodland Chamber of Commerce. John "JJ" Burke, the Woodland chamber's executive director, said Clark County pays just $175 in annual dues to the Woodland chamber while contributing some $2,500 annually to operations of the chamber's visitor center. However, Swanson said the county paid $2,000 to the Woodland chamber. Burke said he was trying to find out whether the county would continue its contribution to his chamber's visitor center, which also receives funding from a hotel-motel tax.

McCauley's letter, as it turns out, was a belated response to a board action taken months ago.

Bill Barron, who retired as county administrator in September, had prepared a list of all of the organizations the county supported, and why. The decision to stop funding chambers was made Aug. 14, Swanson said, during commissioners' weekly meeting with Barron and other senior staff. The county planned to pay invoices for 2013, and then tell the groups that there would be no money in 2014.

McCauley, who succeeded Barron, said the topic of chamber funding came up recently. He learned that the chambers had never been informed of the board's Aug. 14 action.

"This is one of those loose ends that we just got around to tying up," McCauley said.

The Vancouver chamber's Parker said the county has been one of the chamber's larger members, based on employment numbers. Membership fees are based on the size as an employer. Other public entity chamber members include the city of Vancouver, the Port of Vancouver and the Evergreen and Vancouver school districts. Parker said each pay about $1,000 in annual membership fees. Parker said 80 percent of the chamber's 1,040 members are small businesses that employ 20 workers or less.

The county's action flies in the face of her organization's hand-in-hand work with the county, Parker said. For example, chamber members worked with Clark County's Community Development Department to improve and streamline permits for businesses that move into existing commercial space.

Losing county membership "says the county doesn't find the chamber important," Parker said. "At least that's how it feels to the chambers who've been dropped."

Erickson, of the Camas-Washougal chamber, said the county's annual membership fee was "a very minimal amount."

The benefits of being a chamber member include opportunities for businesses and governments to network, and to address economic development issues, Erickson said.

He said he planned to contact Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart about the county's decision.


Staff writers Cami Joner, Stephanie Rice and Aaron Corvin contributed to this story.