Battle erupts over Gresham's contract with Chamber
Gresham City Council narrowly approved a new contract with the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce during a heated meeting Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 10, that included questions of ethics and accusations of lack of decorum.
A battle brewing for weeks over the city's annual financial support of the chamber culminated in a reduction in the contract between the two entities from $99,000 to $75,000 a year for the Gresham Visitors Center, corner of Southeast Division Street and Main Avenue, and tourism services.
In the past, two contracts existed — $52,000 a year to run the visitors center and account for staffing, rent, utilities and more; and $47,000 to attract tourism through better marketing, which was added three years ago via council vote.
"With those funds we were finally able to market Gresham to visitors, and it produced results," said Chamber CEO Lynn Snodgrass.
During the meeting Council voted 4-3 to combine those contracts into the reduced amount of $75,000, a decision spurred by the city's budget crisis. Mayor Karylinn Echols and Councilors Jerry Hinton, Janine Gladfelter and David Widmark all voted yes; Councilors Eddy Morales, Mario Palmero, and Vincent Jones-Dixon voted no.
The vote against the measure, spearheaded by Morales, was to see more of the money redirected away from the chamber, effectively reducing the city's support of tourism to zero.
"These dollars are meant to help with tourism and visitors during COVID when we are being discouraged from those activities," Morales said. "This money would be better spent supporting businesses directly."
They cited tough decisions that have already been made — an increase in the utility fees being paid by the public and looming cuts that will hit every department within the city. They added removing the funding to the Chamber made sense during a pandemic, and that a new contract could be crafted in July 2021.
"If we are promoting visiting Gresham, we aren't doing what (Governor Kate Brown) is asking of us," Palmero said.
Hinton said he was "flabbergasted" by the idea of pulling dollars from the Chamber, praising the work the group has done to advocate for small businesses and increase employment. Gladfelter highlighted the importance of the visitors center.
"We need to look forward, because what we do today paves the path for tomorrow," she said.
Prior to the council discussion, members of the community gave public testimony in support of continuing to invest in the city's tourism.
"Our city has been transforming into a gem in the Northwest, and we have many charming attractions that bring visitors from across the country and state," said Edward Chin, a small business owner and local tour guide. "I urge the council not to defund the chamber."
Advocates pointed out the pandemic wouldn't last forever, and soon people tired of being pent-up during quarantine would look to travel and visit new places.
"Nothing lasts forever — well except maybe death and taxes — this pandemic won't last forever," said Warner Allen. "Gresham could see a massive wave of tourism once the quarantine is lifted and a vaccine is available."
Public testimony also highlighted the other work being done at the visitors center, including offering relocation packets, bicycle tourism, business resources, information on local attractions and lodging, and more.
"If you are bleeding heavily, you don't just let it run down your arm hoping it will stop," Snodgrass said. "A focused, robust tourism plan will help stop the bleeding. Tourism makes Gresham money when you desperately need more revenue."
During the discussion Morales questioned whether Hinton's endorsement by the chamber and in-kind donations in the recent election prevented him from being impartial during the vote. Morales also asked whether Mayor Echols should recuse herself because she represents the city on the chamber board.
Neither Echols or Hinton recused themselves. Echols pointed to her position on the chamber board being ex-officio, and having no voting powers. Hinton also denied any ethical concerns from him voting on the chamber tourism funding.
"I did not receive one penny from the Chamber of Commerce," Hinton said. "I am a friend of the business community — if that creates a bias then guilty as charged."
"I think it's in bad form for a councilor to accuse somebody because of sour grapes nobody on their side received that endorsement," Hinton added.
The two clashed throughout the virtual gathering. Morales asked Hinton to "maintain decorum" during public meetings and not fuel rumors swirling about city leadership. He also took exception to Hinton's use of the phrase "sour grapes" and "crazy" — asking for an apology. Hinton amended "crazy" to "ill-conceived" in reference to Morales asking to defund the chamber, but did not apologize for being passionate about the issue. Hinton also pushed back against the idea he was spreading rumors or politicizing the meetings.
This issue will come back before council in July 2021 as the contract with the chamber will either be renewed or changed.
Value of Tourism
The Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce created a report to highlight the positive effects tourism has had on the community.
The focus was when the City Council approved in 2017 an increase in the contract from $52,000 to $99,000. That led to:
The visitors center also went from handing out 7-10 relocation packets a month to 95-100 — signaling a dramatic increase in those moving to Gresham.
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