A West Seattle public relations star with years of big organization experience will be the next to lead the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. On Wednesday, the group’s board announced Sierra Hansen as the organization’s next executive director, marking an end to the board’s two month search.
Talking about her days as a young lesbian living on the Hill in the 1990s, Hansen said she was excited for the opportunity to be part of the neighborhood that embraced her as she first arrived in Seattle. “It was the one place I could be who I was. It will be nice to give back to the community,” Hansen tells CHS.
The job pays $70,000 to $85,000, requires a bachelor’s, and a “familiarity working within culturally diverse surroundings.”
“Capitol Hill is a diverse, growing community with a vast group of stakeholders,” said chamber board co-chair Jill Cronauer of Hunters Capital in a statement on the hire. “Sierra’s background and experience will be a tremendous asset to the Chamber and our membership to ensure our organization helps shape the community’s future by responding to our neighborhood’s challenges and opportunities. We are excited by the leadership and experience Sierra will bring to this role.”
“I am thrilled to join the CHCC in this role and look forward to working closely with the Board and membership to grow our neighborhood’s business district,” Hansen said in the statement. “I’ve lived, shopped, dined, danced, worked, explored, attended school and walked in Capitol Hill for more than 20 years. I even legally married my wife Barb in Cal Anderson Park on Pride Sunday 2013. It was the first place I felt embraced and accepted and I look forward to give back to the community.”
With a deep resume that includes 17 years of corporate and government marketing and communications work, Hansen will lead the 215-member neighborhood business association through a major shift in culture and purpose as the board seeks to expand its footprint in the neighborhood.
“Would they have hired me if I was afraid of conflict?”
For the past two years Hansen has run her own PR firm, Hansen Public Affairs, representing clients like the Association of Dental Support Organizations, the Downtown Seattle Association, and the LGBTQ credit union Equality Washington.
Hansen’s experience working with developers and business associations, as well as with nonprofits focused on LGBTQ and women’s issues, and her contacts at the county, City Hall and Sound Transit appear to be just the mix chamber board members were after. The board is currently co-chaired by Cronauer, director of property management at Capitol Hill developer Hunters Capital, and resident representative Meghann Glavin who works at Starbucks. The organization was founded in 2007. Michael 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.
The job of leading the chamber has been, in many ways, the equivalent of serving as the mayor of Capitol Hill. But, there is a new mayor, of sorts, in the neighborhood as Seattle transitions to the new district-based City Council.
Though Hansen lives with her wife and school-age child in the Alki neighborhood and wasn’t eligible to vote in the District 3 race, she did have money in the game, donating to support Pamela Banks in her unsuccessful bid to unseat Kshama Sawant.
“I’ve known Pamela for a really long time,” Hansen told CHS. “I appreciate her style. I appreciate her approach.” Hansen said that she “didn’t find Sawant effective” but said she recognizes that the councilor pushed forward “a lot of important things.”
Hansen said she expects the new district alignment in the city “will have a really interesting impact on community organizations” as it puts leaders “in place with deeper roots and ties to community.”
How the chamber will connect with the victorious Sawant after supporting her opponent will be an important challenge for the new director. “We’re really looking forward to building a relationship with the [newly elected] council member,” Hansen said.
The chamber’s choice of Hansen marks a sharp departure from the previous executive director and longtime Capitol Hill independent bookseller Wells. After Wells stepped down in September, board members said that the initiative to expand Capitol Hill’s Business Improvement Area, which currently covers only the blocks around Broadway, was the organization’s next great challenge and central to finding the chamber’s next leader. For Hansen, that will mean building a coalition of neighborhood businesses to support the expansion and the membership fees that accompany it.
The chamber is eyeing a major expansion of the existing Broadway BIA that funds cleaning, and marketing along the street into a much wider-ranging entity. With a budget that could balloon to more than $2 million, Hansen will be tasked with selling the BIA expansion and continuing to show the Chamber is the right organization to lead it.
Broadway BIA membership fees and an assessment based on gross income — $2 for every $1,000 generated — currently provide the bulk of the program’s budget. 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 expansion fits into a larger neighborhood economic plan called Capitol Hill 2020 developed this year by the chamber and the city’s Office of Economic Development.
Aside from her PR business, Hansen has worked primarily for large organizations outside the neighborhood. During her time with Sound Transit and the City of Seattle, Hansen made mark on some high profile transit stories. While handling communications for City Council member Mike O’Brien, Hansen was a supporter of the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel despite O’Brien’s opposition. Last year, Hansen served the Westlake Stakeholders Group when its members filed a lawsuit against the City for failing to adequately study impacts of the Bike Master Plan. She also tells CHS that she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Move Seattle campaign.
From 2012-2013, Hansen served as a vice president of The Fearey Group where she did PR consulting for developers like Equity Residential, as well as the City of Seattle and Swedish Health Services. In
2007 2011 Hansen was a founding member of the Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy, which focuses on “promoting business issues in politics in the Puget Sound.” Hansen was also a longtime board member of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.
When it was first announced that Wells was stepping down from his post, Pike/Pine nightlife owner Dave Meinert took to CHS comments to describe exactly the type of new leader he did not want to see take over at the chamber:
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.
Hansen said she knows that there might be questions about the new direction for the chamber. “It’s a legitimate question that folks might have,” she said. “What I hope folks will do is have an open mind.”
She’s also looking forward to sitting down with business owners and community members like Meinert to ask what the chamber is doing well that it needs to keep doing. Maybe they can invite Council member Sawant and start the conversation with an easy ice breaker — you know, like small business rent control.
Hansen said she is ready to engage. “Would they have hired me if I was afraid of conflict?”