Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 5:52 PM on Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Homer chamber nixes membership with national group to save money

With an unexpected $20,000 computer crash at the end of 2010 and a $10,000 drop in last year's vehicle raffle ticket sales, the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center is doing some belt-tightening.

For starters, the $450 annual membership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is now a thing of the past.

As a result, several local businesses — at least four, said Monte Davis, HCOC executive director — that refused to be associated with the national chamber have now expressed an interest in joining the Homer chamber.

"At the very least, there's $600 in memberships, so there's a gain of $1,050 right there," said Davis, referring to the fee for a business employing one to five full-time or equivalent part-time employees or for membership for a nonprofit agency employing six to 20 full-time or equivalent employees.

"Also, there's the opportunity when you have new members of building a hot link on the website and them donating to certain fundraising activities, so, honestly, the economic benefit is hard to say," said Davis.

Davis, who became the chamber's executive director in June, said the idea of withdrawing from the national chamber was raised in July when he met Carri Thurman, co-owner of Two Sisters Bakery. Asked if she was a member of the Homer chamber, Thurman said no, nor would she be as long as the Homer chamber was a member of the U.S. chamber, Davis recalled.

"So I talked to a couple of other people who told me the same thing," said Davis. "They felt very strongly about it, saying they would love to be a part of our chamber, but couldn't as long as we tacitly supported the U.S. chamber by our membership."

For Thurman, the desire to distance her business from the national organization was due to the U.S. chamber's stand on specific issues, specifically unions and climate change legislation.

"When it became much more in the public eye is when we decided that we should make a stand and not re-up our membership in Homer," said Thurman.

In July, Davis brought the issue before the board. However, with concerns regarding the halibut catch-sharing plan being considered by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and the impact it could have on the local economy dominating the chamber board of directors' attention, the topic was tabled.

When the subject resurfaced in August, Davis explained to the board that at least four former members had expressed an interest in rejoining if the Homer chamber dropped its national membership.

"Economically it made sense for us to no longer belong," said Davis.

The board agreed, according to Holly Van Pelt, president of the Homer chamber board.

"We evaluated the pluses and minuses and the pluses were diminishing because most of the benefits they used to provide for us were available from other sources that didn't cost us anything," said Van Pelt. "In the small community that Homer is, the U.S. chamber just didn't seem to satisfy us. It was a cold, clear look at benefits versus the cost."

What exactly are those benefits?

"You get their legislative updates, but it's not stuff you can't find other places," said Trevor Brown, executive director of the Kodiak Area Chamber of Commerce. "Living in Alaska, we were never able to go to their events anyway. It was just cost prohibitive."

Three years ago, Kodiak decided to drop its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"It was financial. Finances and not necessarily being in line with the positions they were taking," said Brown of the Kodiak chamber's reasoning.

Like Homer, Kodiak is a member of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce, which is, in turn, a member of the national chamber.

"We're definitely members and supporters of the state chamber because they are a little more close to home," said Brown.

Seward is another Alaska city not on the U.S. chamber's list of members. Like Kodiak and Homer, Seward is a member of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce.

"We've had discussions about our memberships even in the state chamber and, through that, the national chamber," said Ron Long, the Seward chamber board president. "And we've had informal discussions about making sure our membership in the state chamber doesn't lead someone to think we agree with everything in the U.S. chamber."

Davis said the Homer chamber's focus right now is on being "as frugal as we possibly can be. ... I'm having to delve into membership funds which we normally like to set aside until the first of the year, but this is one of those deals where you have to use what's on hand and then I'll have to go and find some revenue somewhere to really get us comfortable through the winter."

With NOAA's decision regarding the halibut catch-sharing plan still pending, Davis said he is "extremely concerned about what's going to happen with the (Homer Jackpot) Halibut Derby."

Approximately 65-70 percent of the chamber's membership is directly related to the visitor industry, 40 percent of its budget is based on membership and 35 percent of the budget comes from gaming net proceeds, including the halibut derby, Davis told the Homer News in August.

"We have, as a chamber, relied on the halibut derby for a long, long time," said Davis.

"Not that I don't want to rely on it anymore, but, especially not knowing what's coming down the road with the catch-sharing plan, I'm looking hard to see if I can figure out some new revenue streams. ... We're running really skinny right now."

The Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center operates with a full-time staff of four and one part-time position. The coordinator of the Shorebird Festival is paid through the chamber, but reimbursed by festival proceeds. It also relies on volunteers numbering in the hundreds, said Davis.

Memberships also play an important role. Two Sisters Bakery is about to become the newest.

"I have my little packet right here and am hoping to get over there today," Thurman told the Homer News Monday of plans to become a member of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. "The bakery has become such a part of Homer that it did feel a little weird to not be involved, but we also can only take so much and if they aren't listening, we don't need to go there. But they are. And that's great."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.