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Kenai chamber rethinks priorities

Building commerce to be main mission

Posted: Friday, January 31, 2003

The Kenai Chamber of Commerce has announced plans to focus more on building commerce and drop some of its social involvements, most notably the Kenai Fourth of July events.

The annual community parade and celebration will no longer be organized by the chamber. The chamber also will stop organizing the Community Cleanup held each spring, but will continue to dispense bags from the chamber cabin for that event.

In recent years, several local social organizations and businesses have organized their own cleanup efforts on that day, so that event will likely continue.

The future of the Kenai Fourth of July celebration, however, is not certain.

Cherie Brewer, president of the chamber's board of directors, said the chamber is looking for a group willing to take over the responsibility of organizing the parade and other events held that day.

"With us stepping back it will give other service organizations the opportunity to shine," Brewer said.

So far, however, no group has agreed to take over the responsibility. Brewer said the chamber board decided it would not organize the event, even if no other organization agreed to do it. So unless some group steps up to fill the void left by the chamber, Kenai will go without a Fourth of July parade and celebration this year.

At a meeting Jan. 10, chamber board members voted to refocus the chamber's energy and resources.

"We just want to change our image from a social organization to an organization focusing on economics and commerce -- the main missions of the chamber," Brewer said.

Dropping some of the chamber's social involvements was a byproduct of that decision.

"What we're going through over here is very similar to what other businesses and corporations are doing when they streamline," said Audrey Walaszek, executive director of the chamber. "You don't want to lay off people, but you reorganize based on the resources you have. We're not looking forward to unloading any particular event, but we have to prioritize and keep commerce in the forefront versus social events. And that's what we're doing."

The time and money it takes to organize these events and the fund-raisers the chamber operates are a drain on chamber resources, Brewer said. Even though community volunteers do a large part of the work and are greatly appreciated, it still takes time for the chamber employees to organize the volunteers and it takes chamber money to pay for advertisements and other costs.

"We would love to be everything to everyone, but we have a real gift with (Audrey Walaszek) and we need to utilize her as a marketing person for the city rather than a fund-raising person all the time," Brewer said. "Our executive director has a strong background in marketing and the chamber feels that her skills could be better utilized marketing the city of Kenai in developing commerce than in constantly fund-raising."

A common misperception is that the chamber gets operational funding from the city of Kenai, but that is not the case. Its funding comes from fund-raisers -- like its yearly beer and wine extravaganza -- and the dues chamber members pay. Additionally, some chamber-run programs are funded through sponsorships from businesses.

"Our funding is membership-driven and we need to be doing more for our members, and that is helping build commerce," Brewer said.

Chamber members have commented in a chamber survey that they wanted the organization to focus more on economic pursuits than social activities that do nothing to build commerce.

Although there was no one main factor that prompted this change of ideology for the chamber, the comments from chamber members played a part in the decision, Brewer said.

The downturn in the economy played a part as well, since it has translated into less money for the chamber.

Membership has not gone down, but the amount of money members are able to contribute to the chamber and its projects has declined, Brewer said.

"We just have lost some additional support from our strong supporters on the north road," she said. "With Unocal closing and some of the other companies scaling back, it hurts everyone. They're still members, but we're losing sponsorship dollars because everyone is making cutbacks."

Brewer said the chamber is looking at diversifying its funding sources and said gaming is one avenue it may explore in the future.

The Fourth of July and Community Cleanup events are being cut from the list of chamber-run activities to help free up resources, but that list is not being done away with entirely.

The chamber will continue to organize and participate in some social events, including Christmas Comes to Kenai.

The weekly chamber luncheon forums will be continued, with some changes made to the speaker line-up to highlight member businesses and commerce in the city, rather than focusing on as much politics as in the past.

The Hooked on Kenai program will continue as well.

"Hooked on Kenai partnered retail and the visitor industry and that's really important," Brewer said.

The Town and Gown awards event will continue, as will the beer and wine extravaganza fund-raiser and the job shadow mentorship program the chamber participates in with the school district.

"You can't build a strong economy without a strong work force," Brewer said.

The chamber also would like to play a larger role in marketing the city of Kenai in the future and continue to partner with the city on certain projects, as it has in the Hooked on Kenai program with the city donating space for a Hooked on Kenai kiosk in the airport.

"The chamber is committed to building a stronger partnership with the city," Brewer said. "We strongly encourage continued communication between the city and the chamber, especially now since the chamber is focusing more than ever on marketing.

"We feel like we have the tools to market the city and we encourage the city to call on us and put that into action."

Clarification: This story stated the city of Kenai does not provide operational funding to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. It is true the city does not contribute funding to the chambers general operation budget. However, the city does financially contribute and support the chamber in other ways, including the Fourth of July parade, which until this year has been organized by the chamber, in which the city has donated about $2,210 worth of services from its police, fire and parks and recreation departments; the chamber has had free use of a site in the Kenai Municipal Airport for its Hooked on Kenai headwaters site, which normally carries a $3,000 lease annually; the city leases the land where the chamber cabin is located; and the city spent $10,500 for pole decorations this year, including $7,500 for decorations the chamber asked the city to purchase, and $2,500 for Hooked on Kenai banners. These financial estimates were calculated by Larry Semmens, the citys finance director.



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