It is the kind of story parents trot out to destroy a child with purely sweet and terrible awkwardness: This is where you were conceived. For Egan Orion, the new executive director of the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce, his mother’s point of conception in an apartment above Broadway is part of his life’s connection and love for the street and the neighborhood.
“My family would come to Capitol Hill during the ’80s to shop at the REI store just across the street from here, and I personally become a Capitol Hill regular in the early ’90s when I was young and newly out and the Hill was the center of gay life in Seattle,” Orion said Friday night during the announcement of his hiring at the chamber’s annual State of the Hill event.
But times change, “And in times of drastic change—the kind we’ve been through these past few years — it’s not always straight-forward for business-owners, residents, and community leaders to get a good grasp on what’s happening, and even harder to figure out what comes next,” Orion said Friday night.
Some of what comes next is already in motion.
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Orion first formally solidified his relationship with the chamber last spring when he joined on as administrator of the Broadway Business Improvement Area, the merchant organization run by the chamber focused on issues like garbage and recycling as well as safety issues along the Broadway core. CHS reported earlier on Orion’s ongoing efforts to champion city funding for homelessness outreach workers on Capitol Hill. Orion said that work is about to pay off — once a few more layers of city bureaucracy are worked through and factions in City Hall complete the squaring off about which organization should lead the outreach — workers from downtown’s Metropolitan Improvement District or the REACH effort from Evergreen Treatment Services, considered by some at City Hall to be more the more equitable investment of city funds.
Orion says the work is part of “doubling down on what it means to be the chamber” including “the advocacy work that we do on behalf of the community,” and reimagining “clean and safe” efforts away from monthly chamber meetings and toward larger, public forums and bigger events with more engagement.
The first of these will come April 18th as Orion and the chamber bring together the community with workers and outreach providers, plus representative from organizations like Capitol Hill Housing to discuss homelessness in the neighborhood.
Orion will lead a chamber — the Capitol Hill Chamber is unaffiliated with the national U.S. Chamber of Commerce organization and its conservative politics — primed to get back its mission of representing the area’s many small businesses and neighborhoods in dealings with City Hall and, especially, with promoting Capitol Hill’s culture and communities. Capitol Hill’s nonprofit chamber group continues to represent member merchants and an increasing roster of large institutions and developers.
“I got the sense that there was a perception that the chamber was not filling their core chamber role of promoting the neighborhood’s interests. They were,” Orion tells CHS. “But perception is reality.”
But the chamber was certainly distracted. Last year, the organization pulled back on its multiyear plan for a major expansion of the neighborhood’s Business Improvement Area and around $1.6 million in property assessments that would have come with it to power a much larger organization. Representatives have said the group was reassessing and would likely move forward with a revised expansion plan.
Orion this week described the situation as “more of a permanent pause.” The distractingly huge campaign is off the table and the focus, instead, will be on helping smaller commerce-oriented groups grown and develop. Orion said areas like 15th and 19th Avenues are interested in growing these local efforts. Melrose, too.
“Whether merchants associations or some other form, we just want to help neighborhoods,” Orion said.
Tracy Taylor of Elliott Bay Book Company and a chamber board member said Orion is the right person for the job for the chamber’s newly refocused mission.
“Egan has a rich history with the Hill. He has been an engaged member of the community all his life,” she tells CHS. “His relationships within the community and with the city make him the perfect choice to lead the chamber and to bring this growing and changing community of residents, businesses and organizations together.”
Orion, a longtime event producer of flash mobs and Seattle’s annual PrideFest events, fills a role left empty since the exit of previous chamber executive director Sierra Hansen, who stepped down from her leadership role after two years on the job in late 2017 just as the organization was geared up for the tough battle of trying to win the expanded BIA.
At the launch of its campaign in February 2017, the chamber said it already had support from about 30% of the property owners to be impacted by the assessments which could run between $2,000 and $5,000 per year for most of the 850 or so properties involved along Broadway, 12th Ave, 15th Ave E, 19th Ave E, Melrose, E Olive Way, and Pike/Pine. Owners representing 60% of qualifying commercial property in the existing and newly proposed area were required to approve any agreement to create new borders under the city’s Office of Economic Development program.
To expand the BIA, the chamber needed signoff from “those responsible for 60% of assessments” — not 60% of property owners. In effect, larger landowners have a larger say about whether a BIA should be implemented. But it was opposition from owners of smaller commercial buildings and, especially, homeowners associations from qualifying multifamily residential buildings that rang loudest against the proposed expansion.
The neighborhood’s existing BIA — the Broadway BIA — is also under Orion’s administration. Orion said he hopes for a smaller, 10%, expansion for the area this year and “more intense” projects for the coverage area’s “clean and safe” concerns including graffiti and the increased homelessness outreach.
His approach will include plenty of marketing savvy. Watch for new branding for both the chamber and the BIA in coming months and the social media effort is already being kicked up a notch. Orion, who knows his way around Facebook and forming campaigns and social groups like his newly created Washington for Beto page, has set about creating an effort to further promote the best things about his favorite neighborhood on Capitol Hill Seattle: Best Place Ever atfacebook.com/capitolhillbestplaceever/.
Already credited with saving Broadway’s Pride street festival after the event’s founder lost the city permit for the event in 2017 and faced issues with a lack of support from the Broadway business community, Orion says he also is making plans to get the chamber back into the big, fun, events business on the Hill.
“We’re looking to bring back events that have gone away,” he says. “Events are a great way to engage the public, to get businesses involved, to bring new people to the Hill.”
Orion says he may not fit the mold expected by someone to be leading a chamber of commerce. He’s forgoing an office with plans to keep a desk in the 12th Ave Arts building but do most of his work from home or on the move around Capitol Hill.
“I’m first and foremost a small business owner and I’ve run an LGBT non-profit for years. I’m on the ground everyday on Capitol Hill. Big developers don’t need our help. Small businesses do,” he says. “They are the heart and soul of Capitol Hill but massive pressure — from taxes to regulations and community change — has inhibited their ability to not only thrive but survive. A chamber’s job is to give them resources, advocate for them, and make sure the public knows about their goods and services. If I do one thing, it’s to be a fierce champion of small businesses on Capitol Hill.”
Meanwhile, someday, Orion will have his own delightfully awkward conception story to tell his children. He tells CHS he is planning on starting a family as a single parent next year.
You can learn more about the Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce at caphillchamber.org.