The head of a local chamber of commerce wears many hats. The job entails advocating for local businesses, fielding concerns from members, working with government officials on a wide range of issues and attempting to recruit new firms and sectors to set up shop.
To do their job well, chamber leaders must keep a close watch on the pulse of business within their communities.
A spate of executive director hires has resulted in a changing of the guard for five local chambers, warranting a check-in with a few of the new leaders to gauge the challenges and opportunities they see on the horizon for their cities and towns, especially those affected by the wildfires.
Some of the new faces represent a younger generation as older veterans from the field retire, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
“They will help chambers adjust to the digitization of networking, and thus keep chambers as key players in business development,” Stone said.
All the new executive directors cited a need to build more affordable housing to recruit and retain employers and their workforce within Sonoma County. At the same time, the five leaders face different tests across their communities. In Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley, recovery from the fires looms large while Guerneville looks to diversify its strictly tourist-based economy and Cloverdale seeks to attract more visitors. Here is a sampling of views from the new leaders:
Peter Rumble, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce
The October wildfires destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Santa Rosa alone, placing an even greater onus on the business community to push for more affordable housing. With thousands of residents displaced and forced to compete for limited replacement housing, the risk of losing workers to other areas is very real, said Peter Rumble, 40, a former deputy county administrator who was hired in January.
“Our employers are feeling the pinch on their bottom line,” Rumble said of the local housing crisis.
That pressure has spurred a search for new ways to speed development, Rumble said.
For example, a larger employer who desperately needs housing for employees could offer guarantees to a condo development so that project has a revenue stream to start construction, he said.
The chamber is taking a stronger interest in the performance of Santa Rosa schools because education and housing are the two priorities that businesses value when looking to relocate or expand, Rumble said. The group is targeting sectors such as green technology and the outdoors industry because those firms are already represented in the local economy, he said.
Another priority will be downtown development, which has been aided by a reunified Old Courthouse Square and a SMART station stop at Railroad Square. The biggest downtown drivers are the Santa Rosa Plaza shopping center just off the square and a growing array of eating and drinking establishments, including Russian River Brewing Co., which had almost 400,000 visitors last year.
“We shouldn’t have any vacant storefronts on Fourth Street,” Rumble said of the main downtown shopping district. Two hotel projects — a 144-room AC Hotel by Marriott at Fifth and Davis streets in Railroad Square and a boutique hotel at the site of the historic Empire Building on the square — will help increase foot traffic in the area and support retail business, he said.