Chamber going strong after 50 years |

Chamber going strong after 50 years

Susan Wood

Since its first two meetings at George’s Gateway Club and Harveys Wagon Wheel 50 years ago, leaders say despite controversy, the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce has never backed down from its principles.

Some would argue the South Shore business advocacy group has undergone one of its toughest years. It proposed a business improvement district to fund tourism marketing. The BID was intended as an attempt to restore a drop in subsidies for marketing by the city – a local government the formation of which it helped spur 40 years ago.

In turn, the city rents its building on Lake Tahoe Boulevard to the Chamber for $1 and gives it a marketing subsidy for operating as a visitor center. Of its $400,000 annual budget, the chamber has received $101,000 from the city this year, down by at least $30,000 from the prior year. Diminished subsidies have plummeted from 62 percent of the budget to 25 percent.

At the same time, it has endured much criticism from the business community for supporting a BID mechanism to tax its own and to possibly offset the loss.

Executive Director Duane Wallace estimated the group lost up to 15 members and got an earful from the community because of its position.

“Anytime you lose members it’s disconcerting, but we should expect we’re going to lose (them),” he said Monday. “When I came on board in 1994 with 630 members, I told the board at that time: ‘It’s clear you want to be involved in issues, and so do I.'”

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It now has 27 board members, more than 900 members and eight staffers. In the summer, it adds two more employees. Its operational funds come from membership dues, golf tournament proceeds and retail sales.

“We don’t have to do this. There are times when four of us are here helping people,” Wallace said, pointing to the counter where visitors congregate. The loss of subsidies have resulted in reduced operations – open five days of week instead of seven.

Sure, referrals go to chamber members first, but Wallace said his staff doesn’t “let people go out our door without getting satisfied.”

With a multitude of projects its supported or advanced under its belt, the chamber has long been active in the South Shore community.

Beyond helping tourists find their way around town and acting as a better business bureau fielding complaints, the chamber gathered a $20,000 nest egg for a housing relocation fund that began a few years ago to help displaced renters. The fund has been whittled down to about $3,000.

A few years ago, the chamber also spawned Leadership Lake Tahoe with the Tahoe Douglas Chamber of Commerce. The program is designed to create community leaders. It’s also involved in the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Pathway 2007, a process by which a long-term plan is drafted.

Still, Wallace believes there’s a misconception about the chamber even though he’s not surprised by the criticism.

“You don’t have friction without movement. People think (the chamber is) a bunch of guys with cigars who make decisions in back rooms,” he said, answering one of the criticisms of the BID formation.

Another criticism – Wallace travels on business an average of a few times a year to capital hubs like Washington, D.C.

“I cut back in other places,” he said of the budget expense.

He cited a Capitol trip with two fire chiefs and state Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, that led to a fire plan forum in 2004 that brought Sen. Dianne Feinstein to the area.

“The chamber does things people think just happen,” he said. “We won’t make excuses for trying to make a difference.”

Past President Carol Chaplin agrees. She believes the chamber will continue on its path of involvement and re-evaluation. She predicts further dialogue on combining the two chambers. Tahoe Douglas Chamber of Commerce formed five years after South Lake Tahoe’s.

“This conversation is not a unique thing, but it deserves more dialogue. We’ve got to be creative with our funding,” she said.