Good for Berkeley, Good for Business

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 09:46:00 AM

The publisher and I were invited to attend the meeting of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee meeting on Monday as executives of a Chamber member business, so we went. The meeting was originally billed as a chance to get to know the Chamber’s newly hired CEO, and each Chamber member attending was asked “to come prepared to give [the new CEO] a three-minute summary of what each sees as the one or two most critical features of the Berkeley political landscape. Once these summaries have been delivered, we will have a lively Q&A.” Unfortunately, that never happened, because the new guy didn’t take the job after all, for reasons undisclosed.  

Local community papers like the Planet traditionally depend on local businesses for the bulk of their advertising support. The increasingly moribund nature of the local small business community is therefore a matter of great concern for us, as we watch one advertiser after another first cancel their ads because they’re short of money, and soon thereafter go out of business altogether. They’re the canaries in the coal mine—it’s possible that if we’d understood this two years ago as we do now, we could have predicted the current slump. 

If we’d had the chance to tell the new CEO what the most critical features of the recent political landscape were, we’d have said that the appearance of a glossy flyer featuring three core apparatchiks in what some sarcastically call “the machine”, with the notation that it was paid for by the “Chamber of Commerce PAC” was, to put it politely, a public relations disaster. For the local chamber of commerce to be perceived as coming out flat-footed against what proved to be a very popular referendum movement (9,200 signatures) is just not what you learn in Marketing 101. All of those 9,200 consumers will now probably think twice before shopping with local merchants. And the saddest thing is that most local merchants probably didn’t even know that the Chamber was linked to the campaign against the petitions.  

Yes, yes, we’re aware that the Government Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Commerce is not exactly the same thing as the Chamber of Commerce PAC, and that neither one speaks for all chamber members. We’re also aware that the Chamber’s last PAC (Political Action Committee) attempt, which was called disingenuously “Business for Better Government,” had to be disbanded after running afoul of campaign financing laws. And we’ve even discovered that there’s a new chamber PAC in the works with a new and equally disingenuous name (but it’s not called the “Chamber of Commerce PAC”). 

We do wonder, therefore, exactly what the Chamber of Commerce PAC is. Whom does it represent? Space in these pages is available for a complete explanation. 

It’s not Berkeley’s struggling small businesses, that’s for sure. About 80 percent of the Chamber’s members are small businesses, but its board is dominated by big businesses like Bayer, major property owners, banks and representatives of the University of California. The current board president’s business is “wealth management”, not exactly a problem for most chamber members these days. 

A clue as to whom the chamber represents can be found in the Government Affairs Committee’s revised agenda for the meeting we attended: 

“Topic: How the Chamber can work to Promote and Implement Smart Growth in Berkeley.” 

The description of the panelists offered more clues: 

“John Gooding, a Political Consultant in Emeryville and Board President of the Emeryville Chamber.” His talk was devoted to telling the group (10 or 15 attendees) how Berkeley could be more like Emeryville. Seriously. 

“Mark Rhoades, a principal in CityCentric Investments, former Principal Planner for the City of Berkeley, and a member of the Berkeley Chamber Board.” And, along with his wife, a major and vocal opponent of the referendum petition. 

“Michael Goldin, a Designer/Architect, a Principal in the Berkeley Design Company, Swerve, and a member of the Berkeley Chamber Board”. And a major property owner and developer in West Berkeley, which is the building industry’s newest target of opportunity.  

There was no one on the panel from, for example, WEBAIC, West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies, who speak for the small businesses threatened by proposals to re-zone West Berkeley to accommodate UC Berkeley’s biofuel pipedreams. A couple of the few attendees were small business people who expressed their frustration at the Chamber’s long-time domination by big business interests. The new chair of the Chamber’s small business committee, Lisa Bullwinkel, was there, and she at least has high hopes of improving Chamber performance for its smaller members.  

As a small business owners ourselves, we would be delighted to see the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce Government Affairs Committee take a leadership position to make sure that the Chamber speaks for all its members, not just a few wealthy players. We would be overjoyed to see its Small Business Committee develop concrete proposals for improving the business climate for everyone doing business here—without turning Berkeley into Emeryville.  

In order to put our money where our mouth is, we’ve decided to work on a “No Business Left Behind” program to be offered exclusively to the Chamber’s small business members. We want to give each one a realistic opportunity to advertise on a sustained basis at whatever price they can afford, everything from a simple listing to full pages as is appropriate.  

We do believe what our sales representatives tell potential customers: that on-going advertising in the local paper is the best way for local businesses to attract local customers. Our 40,000 or more readers represent a very desirable locally-aware demographic, and they patronize our current advertisers faithfully. If we work together as partners, everyone involved will thrive, we’re sure.