The South Columbia County Chamber of Commerce building will soon begin the process of upgrading its interior, thanks in part to the contribution of $10,000 from the City of St. Helens’ Community Development Fund.
Chamber Executive Director Simon Date appeared before the City Council during a Wednesday, April 17 work session with a proposal for the building’s expansion. Date said the 2,500-square-foot space is prime real estate that is being under-utilized as the gateway to St. Helens. The proposed expansion, he said, would correct that and would also add resources that could be utilized by local businesses and the public at large, even if they are not members.
It was a big ask, Date said in explaining the proposal, having originally approached the council for $14,000 – the total estimated cost of the project. “It’s funny. This last year has been based on building relationships and I don’t think it would have happened if we hadn’t have made significant efforts to bridge that gap,” Date said the day after his successful presentation. “We work well with the city on lots of different events that they’re doing, lots of different initiatives supporting them, and they’ve been big supporters of us and really having a sense of ‘we’re all in this together.’”
The expansion will add a small business incubator, or a space where start-ups can conduct their business and collaborate with each other in a comfortable, secure environment that will include free wi-fi. There will also be a pop-up shop experience for local businesses with plans already in the works to host Cake House, a local baker who works from her home, to sell sweets in the space. There will also be a coffee bar run by local Special Needs teens and young adults, providing real-life work experience with all proceeds going towards creating opportunities for others.
For the new business center, Date has partnered with Kyocera to ring in a code-based copier and presentation center to assist with resumes and documents, and potentially, remote printing. The business center will also offer free supplies for the creation of documents.
A new visitor center and gift shop will also be added to the space to showcase Columbia County tourism and local businesses in and around St. Helens. Date said it will be an opportunity to invite visitors into an event-based experience where they can see live, local goods up close. The visitor center will feature area attractions and events and has already received a bike-friendly certification from RideOregonRide. The profits from the gift shop will go directly into programming for the chamber.
A “QR room” will also be included in the renovation, complete with QR codes on stylized maps that can be scanned to provide instant information regarding businesses and events around the county.
The expansion will be open to all rather than being solely membership driven.
“I definitely like all the ideas. I like how it’s community based,” Mayor Rick Scholl said after the presentation. “It is the South Chamber, it does serve the whole county and it’s fortunate that it does sit here in St. Helens. We are one fourth of Columbia County, population wise, so we have a lot of businesses. I like the opportunity for new entrepreneurs to be able to utilize the space.”
Councilor Ginny Carlson agreed with the sentiment, stating that since the St. Helens is a bit larger, “I feel like our burden to help out is a little bit greater than, say, Vernonia or Columbia City.”
At that point, Councilor Keith Locke moved to take $10,000 from the economic development fund, totaling almost the entire ask from Date. “Because I think he’s light on these dollar amounts there,” Locke said. “He’s going to need more than he thinks he needs and I want it to be nice, anyway.”
City Administrator John Walsh wanted to add that this was a one-time proposal, but that they’d been having conversations about how to support the chamber. “Some of the conversations we’ve had offline were around the business license and there are some kind of unsustainable revenues we might be able to direct to the Chamber,” Walsh said. “At one point we were talking about either on top of the business license, or within the business license, having a portion of that go to the chamber as some kind of support.”
Scholl agreed that looking further into similar funding opportunities was a great idea. “I like the idea of the chamber eventually becoming self-sustaining and not membership-driven,” he said.
Scholl asked that Date return to the council as the expansion gets underway to update them on the progress, to which Date agreed.
Councilor Steve Topaz was the only member of the council who abstained from the vote. “I don’t know enough about the whole system. I got a little snippet of it today. I’ve been involved at other times with the chamber and there’s just a lot of things I would have to recogitate in my head before I make a decision,” Topaz said. “We somehow have to support it. I’m not sure how. That’s my real problem.”
Date said the St. Helens City Council was just one stop on his mission to source funding for the new renovations, and he will be reaching out to other chamber partners soon to gather the rest of the total estimated cost.