When Simon Date applied for the top job at the Corvallis Chamber of Commerce, he tried to get a feel for the organization’s personality by checking out its website and social media accounts.
He drew a blank.
“The chamber didn’t have a personality,” said Date. “It was hard to tell what the chamber stood for or was about … you couldn’t find anything out online about them.”
Now that Date’s in charge, he’s planning to change that.
Date, who previously led the South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, took over as president and CEO of the Corvallis chamber in July.
It’s a bit of a homecoming for Date, a native of England who played soccer for four years at Oregon State and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies (he jokingly calls it “the athlete’s degree”) in 1996.
One of the things that made him an attractive candidate for the Corvallis job was his track record in Columbia County, where he boosted membership in the chamber serving the communities of St. Helens, Scappoose, Columbia City and Vernonia by 42% in a little over a year.
In Corvallis, though, Date is less interested in increasing the chamber’s membership (which currently sits at 397 businesses) than he is in increasing the organization’s impact on community affairs.
Since arriving in Corvallis, he has focused on making connections — not only with government officials and community leaders but also with as many local businesspeople as possible, whether they belong to the chamber or not. And one of the things he’s learned is that the local Chamber of Commerce has developed a reputation for staying on the sidelines in political debates.
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“It seems like every conversation I have is about the homeless issue or planning and permitting or urban renewal,” Date said, “and these are issues that the chamber should be talking about.”
The first step toward making that happen will be to survey the organization’s members to find out what issues are most important to them and what stance they want the chamber to take. The next step will be for the chamber to start representing the business community’s interests more forcefully at City Council and Planning Commission meetings.
Date said he knows that may ruffle some feathers, but he’s OK with that.
“We can’t be worried about upsetting people,” he said. “I really enjoy having uncomfortable conversations.”
He had plenty of tough talks with the city manager in St. Helens, he said, but it was understood he was simply representing the interests of chamber members and he always maintained a friendly relationship with city leaders on that basis. And, Date added, he’s already had a conversation along those lines with Corvallis City Manager Mark Shepard.
“I said, ‘Look, we’re going to have times when we, the chamber and the city, are not going to agree on things,’” Date said. “And he said he was fine with that.”
The bottom line, Date said, is that local businesses need to be at the table for discussions of important community issues, and it’s the chamber’s job to make sure their voice is heard.
“We’ve got a 400-member base, and I’m not sure we do them justice in the way we represent them,” Date said.
“So hopefully we’ll fix that,” he added. “Or else I’ll be run out of town in, like, seven weeks.”