Chamber director plans to unify "river communities" to attract tourism

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Troutdale business owner Claude Cruz took on duties as executive director for the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center in July. The chamber represents members from Fairview to Cascade Locks, including the unincorporated areas of Corbett, Springdale, Bridal Veil and Multnomah Falls. For new business owners interested in learning about the dynamic of the area where they’ve hung out their shingle, the logical first door to knock on is the local chamber of commerce.

Which is precisely what Claude and Penny Cruz did in 2012 when they opened Marco Polo Designs in Troutdale. But joining the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center sort of snowballed for Claude. He quickly found himself on the chamber’s board of directors, then president of the board and now, executive director.

Claude took the reins as front guy for the chamber in July. Representing the community he has called home for the past two years now includes the business interests of members from Fairview to Cascade Locks.

While tourism and economic development within the gorge communities is paramount to the chamber’s mission, they are only part of the three-legged stool. Claude also believes that collaboration between the Portland, Gresham and the eastern Columbia Gorge chambers is equally important in solidifying vibrant economic growth and community livability.

The Outlook sat down with Claude recently to learn his plans and goals as executive director for the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center.

The West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce represents a wide territory, including the unincorporated areas of Springdale, Corbett and Bridal Veil. How do you unify so many diverse communities and are there common goals they share?

“There is some sensitivity in Troutdale that we should be just about Troutdale. But in order for any community to grow, you have to be in concert with your partners. Tourism and tourism marketing is our center focus. That’s going to help organizations up the gorge, because we’re like a funnel for them from the Portland-metro area.

“We’ve been working hard to establish our brand. We have developed a new website for the chamber, as well as a tourism website that’s linked to us. It’s a way for us to position ourselves as a tourism magnet. Most of our funding comes from the Transient Lodging Tax, from the hotels who care about getting heads in beds. Our bread is definitely buttered on the side of tourism and we want to be respectful of the community, but not to the point of stagnation.”

In 2013, city leaders, chamber members and residents sat down for a visioning session to prioritize ways to promote tourism. The conversation produced three goals — to generate a regional buzz as a destination for art, culture and heritage, outdoor recreation and to act as a gateway to the gorge. How do you integrate those goals with communities whose priorities may conflict?

“Those are our strengths. They are first and foremost the community’s aspirations, but they’re also the things we are looking to enhance with our neighbors. We are small-town America. We guard that jealously because we want to preserve it. And to me, that’s what our community is all about — people talk to each other, they greet each other and support each other.

“But when we partner with other organizations, all sorts of different values come to the table. We each have something to contribute. We need to identify those values so that when we come together, we’re bigger. We all need to ask ourselves, ‘What do I have to contribute that will make my community better? How can I help it grow?’” Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - The chamber is sensitive to the small hometown atmosphere of Troutdale, Cruz said, but is also focused on promoting the area as a world class tourist destination and funnel to the Columbia Gorge region for Portland visitors.

The chamber had been without an executive director for more than a year before your election in June. As board president, you assumed the position of acting director even before your term on the board had expired. What do you see as your biggest challenge in the future, and what do you count as a success so far?

“A lot of what I’ve done the last year and a half is mend fences and re-establish relationships with our sister organizations. But I also want to get the chamber to the position where they can bring someone in who is trained in running a chamber. I want to help the chamber with vision and execution, and I intend to stay engaged with the chamber and community as along as necessary, to make sure they’re strong.

“On the positive side, we’ve picked up seven new board members since the elections in June. It’s been a lot of work for so few people, and we don’t want to burn them out. This is going to be a working board, and this is really a team effort. We’ve got a good head of steam going, and we expect to do great things this next year.”

The West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center can be reached at 503-669-7473.

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