The Hanford City Council agreed to continue the city’s subsidy to the Hanford Chamber of Commerce through the June 30, 2022 — but permanently end it after that.
This fiscal year the chamber is to get $40,000. It has already received $20,000 and will get another $20,000 by the end of June 2022, said Amory Marple, CEO and executive director.
The council’s 4-1 vote on October 19 came after the chamber’s executive director and other chamber members pleaded with the council to extend the subsidy at least until the end of June 2022.
Council Member Kalish Morrow was the one vote against continuing the funding through the end of the fiscal year. Morrow pointed out the chamber’s past financial troubles and the fact that other cities give minimal subsidies to their chambers.
The council never stated an explicit reason why it wanted to end city support but previously there have been funding problems with the chamber. The city staff report referred to a history of struggles with the chamber.
Besides the city subsidy, the chamber gets money from membership dues, fundraisers and Covid relief money. The chamber’s operating expense is about $200,000 per year, said Marple. It has 220 members, up from 150 when Marple started in July 2020.
In the last 12 months the chamber got $35,000 in Covid grant money which was used to hire an employee. Before that Marple ran the chamber herself.
The goal of the chamber is to be fiscally sound, Marple told the council.
A council subcommittee consisting of Morrow and council member Amanda Saltray met periodically earlier this year to review the chamber’s operations. The subcommittee said the subsidy to the chamber needed to be reduced. The chamber’s leadership is trying to make the organization self-sufficient, according to the staff report.
There is “no fluff in the budget,” said Kristine Lee, the chamber’s treasurer. She is also Kings County Clerk. She said it was important to fund the chamber during the pandemic. She said the city signed an agreement to fund the chamber through June 30, 2022. “To not honor (the) agreement is very concerning,” she said.
Chamber activities include the Christmas parade, concerts, scholarships, a Zombie Crawl at Hanford Mall, mixers, luncheons, ribbon cuttings for new businesses, grand opening promotional displays, a membership directory and a newsletter.
The “service the chamber provides is beyond the cost of any membership,” said Tana Elizondo, a member and local insurance agent. The chamber provides members free weekly updates during Covid and personal protective equipment. Elizondo protested the lack of support from the city council.
The city’s funding of the chamber has been halved while membership increased by 50, said chamber board president John Umscheid, a local attorney. He also asked the council to keep funding the chamber until the end of the contract.
The chamber, he said, was on the verge of collapse two years ago with the CEO terminated and board members resigning. During that period the chamber was focusing on too many things rather than membership, chamber leaders said at the time.
For instance, the chamber no longer operates Freddie the Firetruck or the downtown carousel, said Marple. Freddie the Firetruck is a promotional vehicle used to take visitors around town.
Another issue is that Hanford has, in effect, two organizations to promote local businesses. Besides the Hanford Chamber of Commerce the city also subsidizes Main Street Hanford. The mission of Main Street Hanford is to support, promote and revitalize downtown Hanford, according to its website. Its membership consists of downtown businesses.
The chamber has members from downtown and beyond downtown. The two organizations don’t compete, said Marple. She said she has a good relationship with Main Street Hanford.
Information on city money given to Main Street Hanford was not immediately available from the finance department and a representative from the organization did not respond.
However, Main Street Hanford has fundraising events including the popular Thursday Night Marketplace and it collects money from downtown businesses.
Meanwhile, the chamber is looking ahead to ways to fund itself once the city subsidy ends. Efforts include overhead cuts that have already occurred, expanding membership, adhering to a strict budget and applying for certain grants that were not previously available to the organization, said Marple. This was done by creating a separate foundation, she said.