July 20, 2024
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Dubroff: COVID-19 pandemic prompts chambers to merge


Merging the chambers of commerce for Santa Barbara and Goleta is a logical step but it took a global economic crisis to force the decision.

In case you missed it, the Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region and the Goleta Chamber of Commerce announced April 24 that they will combine memberships, creating an organization with more than 1,000 members under a name and leadership to be determined.

The groups said in a statement that the economic impact of COVID-19 prompted the move, adding that a combined chamber will speed business recovery efforts. Yet another example of following the phrase that was popularized by former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel during the Great Recession, “never letting a crisis go to waste.”

You don’t have to look very far to see regional chambers in action. In East Ventura County, the chambers for Thousand Oaks, Westlake Village and Agoura Hills now operate under one banner as the Greater Conejo Valley chamber.

And it’s also been tried in Southern San Luis Obispo County, where several smaller communities, though not San Luis Obispo, have merged their chambers under one banner.

Founded in 1878, the Santa Barbara chamber is one of the oldest business organizations on the Central Coast but it has been operating without permanent leadership since the departure of former CEO Ken Oplinger.

“After 142 years of serving our community, we recognize that these times call for innovation,” said interim executive director Stephanie Armstrong in a statement.

Founded in 1978, the Goleta chamber is led by longtime CEO Kristen Miller who told me that as we dig out from the 2020 recession, it will help if business speaks with one voice to city councils and the Board of Supervisors. The combined chamber will play a key role in “representing business to government,” she said.

Talks about a combination have gone on for a number of months, accelerating after the pandemic shut retail, restaurant and travel-related businesses across the region.

The Santa Barbara Chamber is currently No. 2 in the region with more than 1,000 members and Goleta is No. 12 with about 400. There’s a lot of overlap in memberships and programs and the efficiencies for members in terms of time and money are a powerful argument for merging the pair.

My own theory is that merging chambers makes really good sense in really small communities and in communities where there is a cluster of larger public and private companies. The Goleta chamber counts Raytheon, Deckers, Karl Storz Imaging, AppFolio, Yardi Systems and others among its major employers.

But downtown Santa Barbara has seen a number of tech firms, including Amazon, Sonos, The Trade Desk and others set up shop, a move that is blurring the political boundaries and creating the feel of a unified corporate culture on the South Coast.

I’ve got a personal interest in seeing the merger succeed because Publisher Linda le Brock is on the Santa Barbara chamber board and because our company’s offices are located in a mid-1920s structure that was custom built for the chamber back in the day.

Among other things, having a unified chamber could ease the way for UC Santa Barbara to set up an innovation center in downtown Santa Barbara, something that’s been talked about in recent months.

Although the name and leadership are not yet decided, it is worth pointing out that Santa Barbara is a global brand that has aspiration written all over it. Finding the right leadership to help the recovery in the region’s hard-hit restaurants, small businesses and hospitality venues will also be key.

• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at hdubroff@pacbiztimes.com.