Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce seeks new leader as Wells steps down

Wells at a Capitol Hill candidate debate pitting McGinn vs. Murray (Image: CHS)

Wells at a Capitol Hill candidate debate pitting McGinn vs. Murray (Image: CHS)

With a significant change in its purpose and culture on the rapidly approaching horizon, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce is looking for a new person to represent its more than 300 members.

In a Thursday morning announcement, the business community and advocacy organization said that Michael Wells is leaving the organization after serving as executive director at the nonprofit for five years.

Like our thriving neighborhood, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce continues to evolve. And, today, the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce announces Michael Wells, the Chamber’s Executive Director, has decided to leave the organization. Michael’s departure comes after nearly ten years of distinguished service as president of the board and more recently as Executive Director. Michael advanced many of the neighborhood and the organization’s goals and helped strengthen Capitol Hill community by connecting leaders from organizations across the Hill. We are incredibly proud of the work that Michael has done for the neighborhood, and his legacy with this organization will live on.

“Michael will be sorely missed, but with the strength of our partners, our incredible members, and our diverse and representative board, we believe the future is strong, and we look forward to continuing to serve you and Capitol Hill,” the announcement reads. Wells will leave his role at the end of the month, according to the statement from the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

The chamber board is currently co-chaired by Jill Cronauer, director of property management at Capitol Hill developer Hunters Capital, and resident representative Meghann Glavin who works at Starbucks.

In a letter accompanying the statement, Wells recalled his days as a Broadway business owner at Bailey Coy Books and the “astonishing decade of change” in the neighborhood.

It’s time to move on.  After over a decade of working for the Capitol Chamber of Commerce – first as a volunteer and the first President of the Board of Directors, then as staff – I’ve decided to pursue other opportunities.  It’s been an astonishing decade of change for me and for Capitol Hill.  As a small business manager and owner (Bailey/Coy Books, R.I.P.), I struggled and celebrated with all of you in the good times and bad as an indie, locally owned business.  And after the closing of the store I made the economic health and prosperity of this neighborhood that I love so very much my work.

Wells tells CHS he is taking time to assess his options before announcing what comes next.

Wells filled a variety of roles in leading the chamber — from cheerleader to Hilloween Santa Claus (Images: CHS)

The 50-year-old lead the chamber — the group is unaffiliated with the conservative-leaning United States Chamber of Commerce lobbying group (though if you ever wanted to get a rise out of Wells, you could ask him about his peeve over the confusion) — through an important era in the wake of the organization’s 2007 reformation.

Wells took over as interim director in the spring of 2010 after his Broadway bookstore shuttered. Powered by membership fees and grants, the chamber under Wells became in many ways the leading voice and coordinator for civic activities in the neighborhood beyond the group’s business focus.

Working with the Capitol Hill Community Council, Wells helped lead the push for community priorities like affordable housing in the planning for the development surrounding the about to open Broadway light rail station. In the letter accompanying the announcement, included in full at the bottom of this post, Wells also included promotional events like Hilloween, his work to mitigate tensions with local businesses around Capitol Hill Block Party, and his City Hall advocacy for “increased transit, affordability, infrastructure and safety” in the neighborhood as among his most important work.

In the swirling world of Capitol Hill business, it was sometimes difficult to discern victories from defeats. Wells has continued to take heat from some Capitol Hill business owners and chamber members for not doing more to fight the $15 minimum wage law. Meanwhile, proponents of the wage and advocates for a less commercial, more queer-friendly Capitol Hill frequently targeted Wells’s middle ground approach to the issues.

How the new chamber leadership fits in with District 3’s first representative will also be a key component of the organization’s future.

Meanwhile, during Wells’s time as head of the chamber, the neighborhood’s entertainment economy became a major force to be reckoned with — 100 restaurants and bar openings in three years? — despite the strength of large institutions like Seattle University, Seattle Central, and Sound Transit, along with the growing influx of developers in the neighborhood.

Money to sustain and grow the organization like the Capitol Hill Chamber has been an ongoing issue. While it is a one-of-a-kind institution in the neighborhood, there is a growing roster of business groups in the city like the Greater Seattle Business Association in which organizations can forge alliances — and pay the fees. Many small businesses also see the chamber’s $200 annual membership fee as a marketing cost leaving the organization to compete with the likes of CHS for the revenue. (The chamber and CHS have partnered on past community events and the group advertises on the site.)

The chamber was selected to administrate programs like the approximately $75,000/year business mitigation funding from Sound Transit to help Broadway and area businesses weather the years of construction required to create the new light rail tunnels and Capitol Hill Station.

Money, of course, will also be at the core of what comes next for the chamber.

Board members who briefed CHS on the changes with the agreement that we would not publish our report until the announcement had been sent to membership tell us that the initiative to expand Capitol Hill’s Business Improvement Area which currently covers only the blocks around Broadway is the organization’s next great challenge and the central component for finding the chamber’s next leader.

CHS explored the beginnings of the initiative as we reported on the growth of Capitol Hill Housing and their Capitol Hill EcoDistrict group as potential administrators of an expanded BIA which could spread to manage commerce and community issues across the Hill — with a budget that could balloon to more than $2 million in annual funding.

A Capitol Hill 2020 initiative spearheaded by Wells and the Chamber has laid the groundwork for a major expansion of the existing Broadway BIA that funds cleaning, and marketing along the street into a much wider-ranging entity.  In addition to the City Council’s blessing, businesses and organizations within the expanded BIA’s borders must also sign off. Any major changes to the BIA, including expanding its budget or boundaries, require approval. Membership fees and an assessment based on gross income — $2 for every $1,000 generated — currently provide the bulk of the program’s budget.

A BIA’s presence extends beyond trash and graffiti. The organizations have become conduits for solving neighborhood issues and opportunities with city programs. SPD and other departments check in with the boards and program leaders for buy-in, sign-off and community representation. At a civic level, the groups have clout. Under the current agreement, the Broadway BIA is limited to changes in its assessment rates and borders that come in under a 10% increase in assessment revenue. 60% of all potential members in the existing and newly proposed area would need vote to approve any agreement to create new borders under the city’s Office of Economic Development program. Then the agreement must be approved by the City Council.

The board representatives CHS spoke with called that 60% threshold the chamber’s most important next challenge. “A steering committee has been formed to lead the search for the organization’s next Executive Director—no small task, as these are big shoes to fill,” the announcement reads.

For Wells, the Capitol Hill resident says he will remain a chamber member — and continue to be Capitol Hill’s biggest fan. “This neighborhood is ours to steward, protect and celebrate,” he writes. “I urge all of you to get involved in the discussions around how to help this neighborhood continue to thrive.  To talk with your neighbors, walk your streets, love your hood.”

Wells’s full letter is below.

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11 thoughts on “Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce seeks new leader as Wells steps down

  1. Thank you Michael Wells.

    You worked tirelessly for the betterment of Capitol Hill, not only for the businesses, but for the community at large. Throughout, you’ve been an inclusive leader, always seeking creative solutions to the complex issues our evolving district faced. You consistently aimed for outcomes that served us all, and, in the end, I think that’s why your tenure will be remembered as one of great change and success despite the many challenges you took on.

    Again, thank you for helping revive and grow the Capitol Hill Chamber, and congratulations for all you accomplished.

    Chip Ragen

  2. Michael – I am seriously bummed your are leaving. I joined the Chamber almost entirely because of the programs you fought for and your history as a small business owner in this neighborhood.

    I will now have to reevaluate my membership, and future support for BIA expansion. Having a local chamber run by a local small business owner was great. Having the board of that chamber run by developers and reps from big corporations makes me want to bow out. Time for an alternative small business group focused on Pike Pine and our issues?

    • Yeah, it really sucks when developers and corporations and others who have made investments in our neighborhood want to engage with the community and work with their neighbors to make Capitol Hill a better place for all of us.

      It’s so much better when we’re able to exclude them from the conversation and encourage them to pursue their agendas without any input from residents and small businesses that live and work here.

      Because if history has shown us anything, it is that Dave Meinert has only the best interest of others in his heart.

  3. I have not known a stronger more dedicated or passionate advocate for Capitol Hill in my 11+ years working, volunteering (and for many years,living) on this Hill. Michael has built and fostered solid relationships with Capitol Hill business owners, the police dept, SDOT, City Council, the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Economic Development and countless other City of Seattle departments; often navigating between and within these groups that, at times, have difficulty seeing eye to eye. He has been the voice that Capitol Hill has needed, especially over these recent years of great change. He has been able to deftly represent so many different sectors of Capitol Hill and has done so with grace, humor and understanding. I and the rest of the Cal Anderson Park Alliance would not not have been able to do our work in the park if it were not for Michael and his Chamber work. You don’t see all of the work Michael has tackled and accomplished on behalf of the Capitol Hill Chamber, but trust he has helped advance discussions and solutions for many difficult issues this Hill faces. This champion and passionate voice will be missed and will be very difficult to replace.

    • Certainly makes me question the Chamber’s leadership not keeping this guy around if he’s as great as the people here are saying.

  4. It looks like the Chamber is made up of a lot more than just “developers and big corporations”. Michael sounds excited for this change and I wish him the best of luck!

  5. I’ve worked arm in arm with Michael Wells for the past six years on the betterment of this neighborhood. It’s a huge loss to Capitol Hill to no longer have him in a central neighborhood role. Michael has a broad and deep understanding of the issues we face and of the complexity of a successful Hill. I find it difficult to conceive of the retail tenanting and plaza management at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station without Michael’s direct involvement. He has been involved with Sound Transit’s effect on this community since the late 90’s. I hope the Chamber can find a worthy replacement who is able to quickly take a deep dive into all that Capitol Hill encompasses: Broadway, Pike-Pine, 15th, and the up and coming corridors of 12th and Olive Way. Queer, Straight, Out of this World – Capitol Hill in all its diverse manifestations. We are at a very delicate balance with development, affordabilty and diversity, identity crisis, crime, the suffering of those living on our streets – the neighborhood needs strong stewardship and the resources to help that continue.

  6. This is such sad news for the whole of Capitol Hill, not just the business community. Michael has worked tirelessly to address the many problems that Capitol Hill is currently facing. Working with Michael has been an honor and a pleasure. Under his leadership, the chamber seemed to be more involved in the Capitol Hill community overall, tackling issues such as violence, gentrification, homelessness and a myriad of others. Michael has always been an advocate for Capitol Hill, not just the business community. Thank you for everything you’ve done Michael, and I really wish you would reconsider.

  7. Michael: Sending appreciation to you for your service to the Capitol Hill community, for all the many ways you brought people together, advocating for the things we needed, working towards community goals, seeking broad-based solutions, and celebrating successes.

    In the mid-90’s when I first started working to build support to create what became Cal Anderson Park, back when it was 11 acres of dusty, neglected and unused open space, I went to the Chamber to seek support. They were not a bit interested. To them, the very concept of public open space was considered suspicious.. They wanted customers, not community partners. Partnering with a community organization was out of the question

    Slowly, all that changed and with that change came acknowledgement of the value of holistic community advocacy. Under your leadership, the Chamber became a community force, not just a business force – more inclusive, effective and also more fun.

    Thank you for humanizing the Chamber, for bringing together all sorts of groups to work successfully on the important issues of what makes a healthy, viable community.

    You did a great job.