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More staff, updated dues structure on tap after financial crisis

Last September, four months after Brandon Kraft took over the general manager job at the Forest Grove Best Western, the hotel had a fire that put one-third of the building out of commission.

Pacific University parents who had stayed there heard about it and called Kraft from Hawaii to see how he was doing.

Several members of the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce also called Kraft, who’d been transferred last spring from Tualatin’s Best Western to Forest Grove’s.

But from the Forest Grove Chamber of Commerce? Not a peep.

“I had to contact them,” said Kraft, who spoke with then-executive director Teri Koerner. “No other chamber members have even stopped in to say hello,” he said, let alone ask about the fire.

The silence can be partly explained by the fact that right about the same time, chamber members were learning about Koerner’s financial mismanagement and were heading into crisis mode, said Mike Hundley, one of two chamber vice presidents.

But the problem goes deeper than that. And as the Forest Grove Chamber prepares to revamp itself following its big dinner and auction benefit this Saturday, it must address several critical issues.

First will be hiring new staff. Since Koerner left in November following her termination, former executive director Ray Giansante has been filling that position, to wide acclaim. But Giansante, 77, isn’t there for the long term. In addition, the director will need at least two additional staff, he said.

A healthy chamber provides a wide range of services for its member businesses: networking opportunities; education, training and development; promotion and marketing; referrals and advocacy; and political representation on both local and regional committees. It's a huge mission, chamber advocates say.

“I need to be out talking to business people and asking ‘What can we do to make their business better? How can we support them?’” Giansante said. “I can’t do that if I’m sitting in the office at a desk.”

In addition, there are numerous organizations, such as the Washington County Visitors Association, that the chamber director should be involved with, Giansante said. “Right now, I’m not doing any of that." Even with volunteer help, he said, much of the time he's still “a way-overpaid receptionist.”

Koerner had a part-time staff assistant who was sidelined by an accident two years ago, said Chamber President Tom Raabe. Volunteer and temporary workers took over until the chamber's financial crisis arose. Now there is no one.

But more staff requires more money. As the biggest fundraiser of the chamber’s year, Saturday’s dinner and auction will be the launching pad for its financial efforts. Tickets have virtually sold out, Giansante said, but the chamber is still accepting auction items through Thursday.

Another way to bring in money is to raise chamber dues. Forest Grove’s are low right now, Giansante said. It costs $175 a year for businesses of three or fewer employees, $185 for businesses with more than three, and $100 for home-based businesses, he said.

“We’re going to look at the whole dues structure,” Hundley said. “It hasn’t been looked at for years.”

In Tualatin, annual chamber dues start at $225 for businesses with one to two employees and continue up at various levels to the top amount of $900 for businesses with more than 250 employees.

In Forest Grove, “I firmly believe there will be a dues change,” Hundley said.

An aggressive membership drive is also in order, Giansante said.

Part of that drive will look east, Hundley said. “Our intention is to move into Cornelius and make Forest Grove the ‘Greater' chamber of commerce,’” he said.

Cornelius’ chamber fell apart in 2010 and after trying unsuccessfully to resurrect it last year, Cornelius City Manager Rob Drake contacted Giansante about bringing Cornelius into the Forest Grove fold, Drake said.

“I think we could help boost them financially with more members,” said Drake, who estimated Forest Grove could get the 50 active members who remained when the Cornelius chamber folded, plus as many as 50 more potential members.

Cornelius and Forest Grove have already merged their municipal courts and share a fire chief. Drake thinks a merged, larger chamber of commerce would give “a little more representation at this far west end,” which is important in a county with much larger cities, including Beaverton, where Drake spent years as mayor.

Finally, the chamber needs to revamp its financial oversight. The overall financial investigation is not yet finished, Raabe said, but one thing the chamber has already decided is to have an outside firm do its bookkeeping. Previously, Koerner was doing it in-house, but going outside will give some business to a local firm as well as free up the executive director's time for other important tasks.

After the chamber's whole Koerner-sparked crisis, Raabe said, “What did we learn? I’d like to ask that question of the board.”

It’s standard business practice to analyze and improve, he said. “That’s what our biggest gift is. We have access to some of the best management minds in Forest Grove.”

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