“Business is great in Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara is great for business.”
With these words on the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce answering system, Steve Cushman has welcomed business owners, service providers and working professionals hoping to build or expand businesses on the South Coast.
For the past 24 years, Cushman literally has been the voice of Santa Barbara business. Through his encyclopedic knowledge of the State Street scene, his love of the arts and his ability to sift the real players from the wannabes, he’s been a force to be reckoned with. His efforts helped the city recover from a real estate meltdown and severe drought in the early 1990s. He was early to recognize the beginnings of a genuine high-tech boom as the South Coast was caught up in the dot-com fever. Never shy about his views, he stepped up briefly to run for mayor, albeit unsuccessfully, in 2009.
Cushman surprised many on the business scene with an announcement on May 22 that he would be retiring at the end of the chamber’s fiscal year in June.
But beneath the surface, Santa Barbara is changing once again and his successor will face a new set of challenges. Despite a meltdown in real estate prices, the jobs-housing balance remains desperately off-kilter, putting a squeeze on the ability of employers to expand and hire. A flurry of new tech startups is starting to have an impact but what future role they will play in the chamber is not clear.
The Great Recession has brought big changes to the chamber’s bread-and-butter businesses, restaurants, bars and retail shops, which continue to suffer as prices fall and rents rise. The economies of the South Coast, Lompoc, Santa Maria and western Ventura County are now much more integrated as commuters, residents and companies shift up and down the Highway 101 corridor. How to keep these larger issues in balance while dealing with the day-to-day business of the Chamber and constituents will be a big challenge for the next Chamber president. He or she might to well by remembering the Cushman maxim: “Business is (always) great in Santa Barbara.”