by Lee Barnathan
Like many cities, Santa Clarita has a chamber of commerce and an economic development corporation, each with its own functions. The EDC’s purpose is to attract new businesses and industries into the area. The chamber works on behalf of its members to maintain a healthy business climate.
Yet some people believe that these two entities sometimes work at cross-purposes, resulting in the EDC unintentionally contributing to the chamber’s financial woes.
“I would have to agree with that,” former chamber President and CEO Terri Crain said. “My opinion is, by the city and county funding the EDC, it made the chamber seem irrelevant. If you wanted to join the exclusive club, you joined the EDC.”
Not everyone shares this viewpoint. EDC President and CEO Holly Schroeder and City Councilmember Bob Kellar, whose chamber experiences reach back to the days of the Canyon Country Chamber, say the EDC and chamber are complementary.
“The EDC’s focus is in bringing in what we call ‘traded clusters,’” Schroeder said, naming aerospace, biotech and entertainment as examples. “We’re not focusing on whether we bring in a Cheesecake Factory or not.”
There has been a chamber of commerce in the area since at least 1957, but the EDC is much newer. In 2011, in the midst of the Great Recession, a committee of chamber members led by attorney John Shaffery and Bill Kennedy met with College of the Canyons President Dr. Dianne Van Hook and others to discuss bringing some sort of economic development organization into the area.
“We saw an additional opportunity to create responsible business in Santa Clarita,” Kellar said. “The city had an economic development office. We saw an opportunity to bring good, solid companies and good paying jobs into Santa Clarita.”
“We knew we needed to be proactive and drive the bus on that strategy,” Schroeder said.
Together with city and county officials, they examined different models and came up with their own. Then they asked the city and county for startup and continuous funds. The city and county each agreed to pony up $200,000 annually with the understanding that there would need to be private contributions, and these would have to increase over time.
According to City Economic Development Manager Jason Crawford, those private contributions started around $6,250. Contribute $25,000 and you buy yourself a seat on the executive committee, Crawford said. There also is a board of directors that is limited to 50 (there currently are 33).
The hope was always that once the new businesses and industries came to Santa Clarita, they would join the chamber of commerce, and this has happened to some extent. Of the current 14 EDC executive committee members, 11 are also chamber members. But only nine of the 33 directors are chamber members (six others have the organization, but not the person, listed as a chamber member).
There was always inequality from the start, beginning with the amount the city gives each. The EDC gets five times the $40,000 the chamber gets, something that Crain didn’t seem too happy about.
“I joked that you could slap the EDC label on a cow’s behind if it gave money,” she said. “What an incestuous, entitled group of people.”
It continues, said TimBen Boydston, a longtime resident and former councilmember, with the amount of money one must contribute to join the EDC. The EDC executive committee aside, many businesses don’t want to pay big bucks to join the EDC and the chamber.
The inadvertent result, Boydston said, is “The EDC has replaced the chamber. The chamber had different levels. Big businesses pay more, little businesses pay less. When the EDC was formed by the city and the county, they became the big dog in town. It costs a lot to be in the EDC. It takes all that money. The chamber has only the little businesses.”
Said Crain: “Most of them left, or they did very little with the chamber.”
To paraphrase Leon Worden, a longtime resident and head of SCV TV, say you own a flower shop. The EDC’s job is to identify a need and bring in that business. But the little mom-and-pop flower shop that belongs to the chamber doesn’t want more competition being brought into the valley.
Yet, Worden also said, “I don’t know if I’d characterize the EDC as killing the chamber.”
He isn’t alone. Kellar sees a complementary relationship between the two. “There are companies that bring employment opportunities, and those people spend money on mom-and-pops,” he said.
Can the EDC rescue the chamber?
Schroeder said it’s good for the business community to have a strong and healthy chamber to go with the EDC. But, the challenge is how to make the chamber stronger and healthier.
Crawford has said the city has tried to help by giving the chamber a year of free digs at City Hall, which began Jan. 1. Would the EDC help in some way, too, perhaps by making a financial donation?
“That is a great question. I don’t have an answer for it,” Schroeder said. For that to happen, the board must discuss and approve such a move, but as of now, “there have not been any formal (talks) like that,” she said. Nor is there a scheduled board meeting for another month, she said.
She also hasn’t spoken to the 18 board members who are not chamber members about joining, but she said she wouldn’t be opposed to it if the board asked her to.
However, Schroeder said, the EDC has tried to help by telling its businesses that the chamber is “a business resource that is available to join.” Members have also told various businesses that are either moving into the area or expanding that there is space in the chamber’s former building on Tournament Road that could be sublet.
“We haven’t found success yet,” she said.
That building remains vacant, and the EDC remains in far better shape than the chamber.