SANTA CRUZ — Despite the new economic landscape and the constant technological evolution that is transforming businesses, monthly mixers and the old-fashioned chamber luncheons continue to hold sway in the community as evidenced by the sold-out crowd at the 125th annual luncheon of the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.
Since it was organized in 1889, as the Board of Trade of Santa Cruz, the nonprofit organization known as the local chamber, has sought to improve the economic vitality and overall infrastructure for members and the community as a whole. The mission today isn’t much different than what it was when Henry H. Clark, a civic-minded physician, stepped up as the first president of the organization, said Bill Tysseling, executive director of the chamber.
With his peers, Clark, who started the first electric railway in Santa Cruz County in 1891 and served as city mayor, laid the foundation for frontline advocacy, which included working for the Southern Pacific Co. rail line over the Santa Cruz Mountains in 1909. The chamber went on to push for the first highway, the first airport, and later a community college, the university and, more recently, a high speed Internet infrastructure, wider highways, water, education and private investment.
“And, I doubt that 25 years from now, you would see that as very different,” Tysseling said. “The question is: How do we organize around that and what are the specific projects and objectives that are attuned to the economic time?”
THE EVOLVING WORKFORCE
Tysseling describes “a fundamental transition” in the economy, particularly in how we communicate. For the chamber, that means expanding new services to an emerging constituency that is not just a business owner or investor. These days, people are often wearing more than one hat. They are employees, consultants, entrepreneurs and investors, sometimes all at the same time, Tysseling said.
“The relationship between capital and workers is changing right now,” Tysseling said. “If the chamber’s goal is prosperity of the community, it has to start looking at the community as all the workers. The chamber needs to be able to serve that system.”
That means education, capital and a flexible infrastructure.
“These are critical elements of infrastructure that will decide how competitive we are as a community.”
The university simply wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the relentless advocacy of the chamber, according to Bill Doyle, a former UC Santa Cruz biology professor who has researched and written extensively on the university’s early days.
“The greatest impact the chamber has had on the community is in fact its role in convincing the regents to put the campus here in Santa Cruz,” Doyle said. “It was a continuous effort on their part. Every time there was a visit by the UC regents, the chamber was there to make sure the meeting place was available and refreshments were there. Every step of the way. They provided the glue. They were involved in education.”
But, there are challenges for the chamber in this new era of proliferating online MeetUp and social media groups that have drawn a legion of tech-savvy entrepreneurs to splinter off into new entrepreneurial groups of their own.
When Doug Erickson, founder of the wildly successful Santa Cruz New Tech MeetUp first envisioned the networking group, he didn’t even consider the chamber as a launching pad. Instead, in 2009, he chose the MeetUp platform to connect the local tech scene.
“I have to say, I’m not a spring chicken, but I always had this perception of the chamber as being sort of there to advocate and represent the business community,” Erickson said. “It’s probably ignorance on my part, but when I was really young, my impression was, do I have to wear a fez or something?”
This last year, Erickson wondered if there was still a need to continue the tech MeetUp and he received a resounding yes. The group, which has nearly 1,300 online members, has gained traction in the local downtown co-working communities, among investors, employers, freelancers and educators. Each month, more than 100 people attend its $5 event for the agenda of new technology presentations, entrepreneurship and networking.
The SC Tech MeetUp is just one of dozens of local business groups launched online in recent years to help with networking, job searches, startups, specific technologies and economic issues.
“Maybe because of technology and because of social media and because we live these lives, we are almost reinventing ourselves yearly,” Erickson said. “I have to learn new technology and skill levels to stay in the business yearly. It’s not like my dad who was a lifetime school teacher and administrator. We’re living in this completely different day and age. I think there’s a need to be part of many different groups and communities.”
For the chamber, it means the largely volunteer-run traditional organization has had to push ahead with a sometimes smaller, more distracted base of volunteers.
“The chamber is first and foremost a member organization so it’s not itself old-fashioned,” said Kirsti Scott, president-elect of the chamber. “All the members are what make it happen. Even though it’s not a new organization, all the people who have joined in the last 10 years are very forward people.”
The chamber has a broader focus than most MeetUps, Scott said. “It’s not the road. It’s not the water. It’s not getting visitors here. If you look back at the history of the chamber, these have been the people who are civic-minded, the people who like to get things done, people who want to give back to the community as a whole.”
This year, there will be a greater focus on youthful members, says Eric Summers, the newly seated 32-year-old chamber president.
“It’s something I’ve been working on,” Summers said. It’s kind of an opportunity we have. I think they look at the chamber like the old guard, their parents’ and grandparents’ organization.” Part of the challenge is educating young business owners about being part of a civic organization. “It’s going to take a lot of telling our story and proving to them the benefits. We’ve got a lot of work out ahead of us.”
Follow Sentinel correspondent Jennifer Pittman at Twitter.com/jenniferpittman
Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce
HEADQUARTERS: 725 Front St., Suite 108, Santa Cruz.
BACKGROUND: Founded Oct. 3, 1889 as the Board of Trade of Santa Cruz ‘to foster, encourage and develop the mercantile, manufacturing, agricultural, horticultural, viticultural and home interests of the City of Santa Cruz and of Santa Cruz County.’ It merged with Santa Cruz Promotion and Entertainment Committee and became the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce in 1908 and was renamed the Santa Cruz Area Chamber of Commerce in 1920 when it incorporated as a ‘local, nonprofit member organization dedicated to promoting economic vitality and prosperity in Santa Cruz County, to ensure a high quality of life, fairness and efficiency in community decision making, and efficient and sustainable business practices.’
LEADERSHIP TEAM: Eric Summers, president; Bill Tysseling, executive director.
INFORMATION: (831) 457-3713; www.santacruzchamber.org
IF YOU GO
125th Annual Meeting and Luncheon (sold out)
SPEAKER: Bill Underwood, founder of Catalyst Consulting: Being ‘less wrong’.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.”“1:30 p.m. Thursday.
WHERE: Cocoanut Grove, 400 Beach St., Santa Cruz.
COST: $39.50/member, $50/nonmember.