Zoe Taylor had literally packed her bags the night before in Paso Robles when I caught up with her on her way home to Ventura.
She had just wrapped up her fifth assignment as an interim chamber of commerce CEO, including a stint in Santa Barbara, Huntington Beach, Manhattan Beach and Kingman, Arizona. Before that, she spent 14 years as head of the Ventura chamber.
With tourism veteran Sunni Mullinax installed as the new head of the Paso Robles chamber, it was time once again for Taylor to move on. But not before I had a chance to sit down with her and talk about what makes a 21st Century chamber of commerce tick.
For her, job No. 1 is not membership sales or hosting mixers, the activities we normally associate with business organizations up and down the Central Coast. It is engaging the business community in economic-development issues, particularly when it comes to developing the workforce.
It means representing the business community in working with local elected officials to develop an economic strategy and “building stronger relationships with city and county governments.” It means a more active role for chambers in the political process, including hosting debates, endorsing candidates and even, as in the case of Goleta and others, creating a political action committee.
These are bold actions, but Taylor says they are essential if chambers are going to remain relevant. And she said a new generation of chamber executives expects to play a more active role in civic affairs. “This year and the next year,” she said, expect to see more and more veteran chamber executives retiring or moving on to other opportunities. “The new ones are ready to go.”
In recent years, the chambers in Santa Barbara, Camarillo and San Luis Obispo have all brought on new folks or promoted from within. So far this year, the Santa Maria and Paso Robles chambers have hired new CEOs.
Part of the new role for chambers involves meeting with the largest companies in the area and developing a stronger relationship around government affairs and government relations. Large employers write the biggest checks for membership and they expect value for their investment.
“You have to have some meat there,” she said.
Her role usually involves developing a business plan that plays to the chamber’s strengths. In Ventura that meant developing a business incubator that houses startup tech companies with the chamber initially as lead organizer.
In Paso Robles, she’s been working on creating a 501(c)3 educational organization within the chamber umbrella that can seek grant funding for workforce and other initiatives.
“Membership only accounts for about 40 percent of a chamber’s revenue,” she said.
One of the toughest issues for coastal California chambers has been pushing for more workforce housing. While chambers can earn a seat at the table in discussions on housing elements and municipal general plans, that’s no guarantee that dirt will actually move and housing will be developed. In Paso Robles, the chamber has been gathering stakeholders including developers and others to build a consensus around increasing the population from the current 30,000 to 44,000, Taylor said. That will mean getting a better handle on what kind of housing will be in demand and what the workforce of the future will look like in North San Luis Obispo County.
For Paso Robles, where the California drought has reached crisis levels in parts of the city and surrounding areas, the chamber business plan also means engagement on water issues.
What is encouraging, Taylor said, is the emergence of companies such as Paso Robles-based enterprise resource planning software maker IQMS as leaders in engaging in civic issues.
There was a time when coastal California cities could look to the climate and lifestyle and put economic development on the back burner. In those days, a chamber of commerce mainly worried about who was or wasn’t paying their dues and whether there was a host for the next mixer.
Those days are long gone, and Zoe Taylor has done a lot to help chambers of commerce embrace the future.
• Contact Henry Dubroff at [email protected]