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New chamber leader sees progress ahead

After a tumultous two weeks, the new president of the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce is excited for the group’s future.

With new leadership, said Tamie Tlustos-Arnold, she is hoping for substantial growth and engagement.

“There is real excitement about the future of the chamber as a unified group,” she said.

The chamber is the business booster group for Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village. It has a half-time executive director, a staffer to run a visitor’s center in downtown Troutdale and a yearly budget of $120,000.

Tlustos-Arnold stepped in after a heated board meeting March 10 during which Mark Mabbott resigned as president and two new board members were appointed. Mabbott declined to comment on why he resigned.

Tlustos-Arnold, a Fairview city councilor and Republican candidate for Senate District 25, said the larger than usual meeting attendance was evidence of the membership’s concern.

“There was a general sense that the chamber was going in the wrong direction, experiencing declining membership and there was turnover in the visitors center, leading to board members being asked to staff it to keep it open,” she said. “Based on the attendance, it was clear that there were longstanding concerns in the membership that hadn’t been addressed for quite some time.”

Tlustos-Arnold said two more board members, Terry Smoke and Glen Mackey, were appointed that evening because they wanted to help.

“There have been vacancies on the board, with only 10 seats out of 21 seats filled for many years,” she said. “With members asking to be part of a new beginning, moving the organization forward cooperatively, I believed it best to bring them on board as soon as possible. Many hands make a lighter load.”

But not everyone agreed.

A second board meeting March 17 led to Executive Director Claude Cruz’s resigning his half-time position. Board members Bill Peterson and Karen Schaaf followed with their resignations.

Cruz characterized the changes as more hostile, viewing the new leadership as a step backward.

“There’s so much potential and I wanted to help realize it,” he said. “Sadly, that has been lost.”

Cruz described the March 10 meeting as an orchestration, filled with members who had an “ax to grind.” Some were upset about the departure of Marcia Chiaudano, who operated the visitor center. Cruz said others were upset with his testimony during a Troutdale City Council meeting concerning the sale of urban renewal property to Eastwind Development.

“As executive director, my role is to promote the good of the community because the community supports good business and vice versus,” Cruz said. “I merely put on the table in a very polite way some concerns over open issues in the agreement. But that was enough to really light people’s fuses.”

Cruz said he decided to resign when Tlustos-Arnold was named acting president and his supervisor.

“We just do not work well together,” he said. “So at that point with great regret, I had felt enough disrespect and lack of support I simply resigned on the spot.”

Peterson also resigned because of the board changes.

“The actions taken in the last two weeks by the Board of Directors do not meet my expectations for organizational behavior, and I will no longer be personally affiliated,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Cruz said he’s concerned for the future of the chamber and ongoing projects, such as the gorge bike hub and the chamber’s move to the Rail Depot.

“If the organization is to survive, it will need to rebuild this trust,” he said. “For the sake of the community, hopefully it will succeed.”

What to expect

Tlustos-Arnold’s view is less bleak. She said work has already begun to find an interim replacement for Cruz and to review the chamber’s finances.

“The chamber exists to market, support and advocate for the business community in our area and we intended to do just that,” she said. “We will grow membership in the short term and thereby have a larger number of volunteers and supporters. The interim (executive director) will then hire staff for the visitors center, and the chamber will move forward.”

As to the ongoing projects, Tlustos-Arnold said these obligations are under review and will be prioritized.

“We don’t expect any changes at this time, but part of the reason for these events included the expression from the business community that the chamber wasn’t properly prioritizing its resources,” she said. “So our focus will be evaluated to make sure that we are more responsive to the needs of our members.”

Tlustos-Arnold added the chamber is looking forward to a bright future, in which local business owners will be the priority.

“It is always challenging to hear criticism. But when you do, you have two choices. You can become resentful and defensive, refusing to listen. Or, you can hear what is being said and make the sometimes uncomfortable choice to change for the better,” she said. “A majority of the board of the chamber chooses to change for the better and I support that whole heartedly.”

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