The Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce’s ambitious but thus far unsuccessful effort centered around creating an expanded business organization with the power to assess properties from I-5 to 23rd Ave will end in 2019. The nonprofit organization representing the neighborhood’s business community is suspending operations effective June 2nd, the board announced Thursday.
But a larger organization with a strong track record of effective — and socially progressive — pro-business advocacy is ready to fill the gap.
Louise Chernin, executive director of the Capitol Hill-headquartered Greater Seattle Business Association, tells CHS her organization hopes to step forward to create a new effort under the GSBA wing dedicated to the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It’s a continuation, she says, of work already underway at the GSBA.
“They’ve called us in the last two years because they weren’t getting services,” Chernin said about Capitol Hill shops and restaurants who have been looking for more support in their issues with Seattle City Hall and in Olympia. “I think we’re just going to continue doing what we do but we’ll just be more open about it. We respected the chamber, we wanted them to succeed. We’re hoping this new version, they will succeed.”
The latest version of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce dates to the mid-2000s after a boost from city funds created the reformed organization. The nonprofit worked to grow membership and transition to be more self supporting and gained mostly stable footing under former Broadway bookstore operator Michael Wells who took over in 2010 and helped lead efforts like the community process to shape the transit oriented development currently under construction around Capitol Hill Station. CHS also partnered through the years with the chamber on the annual Shop the Hill promotion. The ill-fated multi-year push to establish an expanded business area with the power to collect around $1.6 million annually in assessments ground out under new director Sierra Hansen until she stepped down in 2017. The initiative was officially put on ice last year.
In their announcement, the chamber board co-chairs Joey Burgess of Queer/Bar and Tracy Taylor of Elliott Bay Book Company, describe a confluence of factors leading to the decision to so abruptly shutter the organization.
“This was not the outcome anyone on the Board, past or present, desired, but as a board we are fiscally responsible to make sure that we close the Chamber doors while still in the black,” they write.
The chairs said 2019 “was anticipated to be focused on rebuilding our foundation as a chamber, in support of the businesses on Capitol Hill.” The group had hired a new director with a small business focus in Egan Orion and was setting about smaller initiatives like yet another rebranding and adding a small series of public forums on topics like homelessness and LGBTQ issues.
“While our goals were reasonable and seemed viable, unanticipated developments made it clear shortly after the State of the Hill in February that we did not have the capacity to progress,” the chairs write. “We saw the loss of a few key board members; Egan decided to run for City Council; and a reduction of funds from the OED, imposed insurmountable obstacles to operating as a true Chamber model.”
Instead, a planned smooth transition to a new version of the neighborhood chamber working under the wing of the GSBA had to be put aside over cash flow. GSBA will now have to apply for city funding that had been lined up for the Capitol Hill chamber under an open process where other organizations could step up and stake a claim that they can better represent Capitol Hill business interests.
Chernin says she believe GSBA can make a strong case with City Hall, the neighborhood business community, and the existing chamber’s members.
“The biggest concern for businesses is Capitol Hill visibility, retaining their identity,” she said. “And we are absolutely committed to that because Capitol Hill is so important to GSBA — not to mention it’s one of the most important business districts in the state of Washington.”
“Before there were any of these chambers, we’ve been around 39 years and whether we were located here or not, our membership was located here.”
Once city funding is locked down, the GSBA and chamber merger will look something like this. GSBA will form a “Capitol Hill Alliance,” add a seat on the GSBA Board of Directors, and create an advisory board “made up of Capitol Hill business and community Leaders and a dedicated staff person.”
Then comes the hard work. After the failed attempt to create an expanded “Business Improvement Area” under the chamber’s 2020 plan sapped much of the remaining energy and resources of the group, Chernin said she hopes GSBA will represent an opportunity for advocacy and better policies for Capitol Hill businesses.
“The CHCC and the GSBA Boards are both eagerly anticipating the potential opportunities for our CHCC members in this new partnership,” the closure message from the chamber board reads. “GSBA assures us that current CHCC members will continue to enjoy the benefits they currently have as well as the added benefits that membership in a Capitol Hill Business Alliance and GSBA will afford them.”
A decision on how the Broadway Business Improvement Area, a program dedicated to street, safety, and business issues on Broadway, fits into the future set-up remains to be worked out, Chernin said.
She also said she has pledged to continue the chamber’s three main events — the annual Clean Sweep around Cal Anderson for Pride, the Hilloween holiday festival, and the annual Spirit of the Hill awards. Sunday’s 2019 edition of the Clean Sweep, by the way, is set to be the chamber’s grand finale.
Chernin say that, in addition to helping Capitol Hill businesses with day to day issues like clean streets, GSBA will be able to do more to help the neighborhood’s commercial community on issues around new laws and legislation.
“Having a large policy focus with lobbyists,” Chernin says, “we hope will be a great benefit to the businesses up on the Hill.”
Growth for the GSBA won’t put it at loggerheads with other large Seattle pro commerce groups like the Downtown Seattle Association, Chernin says, even though the DSA could also make inroads with Capitol Hill businesses in absence of a dedicated chamber.
“We know the DSA and the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce,” Chernin said. “And we know the small chambers. We have a great relationship with everybody.”
Started 39 years ago, the GSBA has grown an LGBTQ focused approach to business advocacy into a regional and, now, statewide effort. Chernin said citing recent events in Spokane and work in Snohomish County. The adoption of Capitol Hill could be part of similar new efforts for the nonprofit.
Even with growth to around 1,300 members, Chernin estimates more than 80% are still small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. But larger members and sponsorships are powerful allies, she said. “It’s our corporate members that allow us to do free workshops and programming.”
About the DSA, specifically, Chernin said the GSBA has found common ground with its conservative downtown cousin.
“We have a very good relationship with them. Do we always agree? No,” Chernin said. “I do think that the concern about crime and safety, certainly GSBA shares those concerns, but we’re very careful to not victimize people who already have a hard life on the streets. And yet we understand for our small business members, having street disorder and crime in front of your business is very difficult. We try to bring people together.”
Like the DSA, the GSBA also opposed a head tax in Seattle and supported the “total compensation” model of a $15 minimum wage. It also was a major champion of marriage equality and continues to hold an annual candidates session billed as “”the region’s only LGBT candidate forum.”
“We’re probably one of the most progressive business groups in the country,” Chernin said.
Meanwhile, Pridefest organizer and, now, City Council candidate Egan Orion will see his tenure as chamber executive director end after only four months at the helm.
“One guiding principle for me during my short tenure at the Chamber has been how to best serve our neighborhood’s small businesses,” Orion said in a longer statement sent to CHS. “I believe that the GSBA can do the work the Capitol Hill Chamber has been doing and expand on it, with training, access to resources, and the staffing capacity to effectively lobby local and state government on small business policy.”
Chernin said she believes Orion has been miscast by anybody who calls him “the chamber candidate.”
“I don’t see Egan as an arm of big business,” she said. “Egan is so grassroots.”
Chernin said she isn’t currently endorsing Orion’s candidacy but she did describe what a good candidate would look like.
“I think what people are looking for — who have had concern that the council has in wanting to provide equity to everybody in our community made some bold moves in the last few years that are good. They’re good for employees, but they have not understood the impact on small business — But they are looking for that understanding.”
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