[EDITOR’S NOTE: A version of this article was originally published online on May 22. It is updated here with additional quotes and information.]
Steve Cushman is retiring as president of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce after 24 years of service, the organization said May 22.
His reign as chamber chief is the longest in the agency’s 113-year history. Cushman’s retirement from the chamber is effective in June, at the end of the chamber’s fiscal year.
He said he plans to start a business development and fundraising company. “I’ve worked advising local business and nonprofits for the past two decades. Although I’m retiring from the chamber, I’ll continue to advise them in the future,” Cushman told the Business Times.
Cushman will stay on as president until mid-summer to ease the organization into new leadership. The board of directors plans to appoint an interim president until the search committee finds a replacement for Cushman, said Janet Garufis, chairman of the chamber and president and CEO of Montecito Bank & Trust.
“The chamber is a very important member of this business community,” Garufis told the Business Times. “The board members take this as a very serious responsibility. We want to find the right type of person who can continue supporting businesses and bringing vitality to the region.”
Garufis said the board doesn’t have a strict deadline to name a new president. “It will take as long as it takes to find the right person. We hope to find just the right fit,” she said.
Cushman first came to the South Coast in the 1960s to attend UC Santa Barbara. After graduation, he did a stint as a professional baseball player and served in the U.S. Army. He lived in Southern California for a number of years, working as director of athletics for the city of San Diego, director of the San Diego Athletic Foundation, managing partner of National Racquetball Courts and associate director of the Southwest Museum in Highland Park.
Since Cushman returned to Santa Barbara 24 years ago, he’s been an active member of the business community. He was named executive director of the city’s Downtown Organization in 1988, and served as president of both that agency and the chamber of commerce for eight years. The Santa Barbara chamber is the third-largest in the Tri-Counties with 1,200 members, according to the Business Times’ annual survey.
In addition to his full-time job as head of the chamber, Cushman has served on more than 100 nonprofit boards and commissions and raised more than $60 million for local projects. He’s also the producer and host of “Commerce,” a weekly radio show broadcast on KZSB. In 2009, Cushman ran for mayor of Santa Barbara, a post that went to Helene Schneider.
In addition to finding a replacement for Cushman, the chamber’s board is focused on remembering his quarter-century commitment to the organization, Garufis said.
“We’re excited for Steve. He’s going to start a new adventure in his life,” she said. “He’s been doing this job for a very long time, and we want to honor him for what he’s done.”
Cushman counts bringing Tenet Healthcare Corp. to Santa Barbara among his greatest accomplishments, he said. Cushman said he met Jeff Barbakow, the former CEO of Tenet, during a tennis match, and suggested that the health care company take over a building on upper State Sreet that was to be vacated by an insurance company.
He’s also proud of his role as a counselor to the hundreds of startup companies that have been born in Santa Barbara since he began working with the chamber, he said.
Building the 10,000-square-foot Kids World Playground in Alameda Park in 1994 is one of Cushman’s best memories of the job he’s leaving, he said. Under Cushman’s leadership, the chamber recruited 4,000 volunteers, raised $500,000 and built the playground in five days.
“The playground really was an incredible accomplishment. With all the resources and volunteers that went into it, it was really something,” Steve Amerikaner, a partner at law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and former chamber president, said. “Steve [Cushman] has been an incredible resource for not only the chamber but for the entire Santa Barbara community. He will be missed.”
News of Cushman’s retirement comes after a couple of years of turnover in the region’s chamber leadership. Dave Garth retired from his post as president of the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce last year after 38 years there. During his tenure, the organization morphed from a small, flailing agency to a strong advocate for businesses in the region and the second largest chamber in the Tri-Counties, punching well above its weight for a city the size of SLO.
Two months ago, Patrick Ellis resigned from his position as president and CEO of the Moorpark Chamber of Commerce. He held the top job for five years before leaving to become president of the Murrieta Chamber of Commerce.