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Chamber director has heart for community

West Columbia Gorge group has a new leader with roots and vision
by: Jim Clark Fairview resident David Eatwell is the new executive director of the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce.

To Dave Eatwell, the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce is more than just a pit stop for tourist information.

The chamber is like a wheel's hub, turning the spokes of environmental, cultural, educational, social and economic development. Combined, they spell job creation, quality of life and future economic stability.

'All those elements create a community people want to live in,' Eatwell said. 'The chamber's primary goal is to lead the effort to improve the business environment for our members - to help them thrive. But we also want to create a sense of community and home.'

Eatwell, 62, took over the reins as executive director for the West Columbia Gorge Chamber of Commerce in January. His résumé of creativity in community and economic development has had an impact in numerous neighborhoods from North Portland to Centralia, Wash., including founding the 18-year-old Columbia Slough Small Craft Regatta, the largest one-day water paddle in Oregon. Eatwell's arrival also brings new energy to the chamber, which has weathered leadership following its reorganization in the early 2000s.

While promoting and fostering economic development is a passion for Eatwell, he also believes that small businesses are the backbone of a community and visionaries of the future.

A native Oregonian, Eatwell graduated from Willamette University in Salem and spent seven years in the U.S. Air Force as a meteorologist and public information officer. Following his discharge in 1975, Eatwell moved to Houston. He opened a television production company, produced several documentaries and offered his expertise to attorneys looking to refute video evidence presented during litigation.

'I was hired as consultant by a boutique law firm in Houston,' Eatwell recalled. 'I did accident re-creation and established technical standards to use video as evidence in court cases. Video was all analog then, so it was easy to spot edits. It's far more technical today. The funny thing is, I worked in television for 20 years, but I never learned how to program the VCR or the clock.'

Eatwell sold his company in 1991 and returned to Oregon. Burned out with the 'cut-throat' nature of television, he turned to working with local nonprofits and community associations in his North Portland Kenton neighborhood.

'People who work for nonprofits are all about working for the people in the community,' he said. 'I wanted to spend my time with people I liked and respected. People who wanted to make the world better into the future - people with vision. It wasn't like that in the business world.'

Eatwell recognized that for a community to flourish economically and otherwise, neighbors needed to be engaged in the issues affecting them. From 1994 to 2001, he published 'Neighbors Between Rivers,' an independent newspaper distributed to 27,000 households in the North Portland/Columbia Slough area.

'What I liked about publishing that newspaper was that we used volunteers and contributing writers,' he said. 'We were able to cover issues more in-depth. We were also able to get the neighbors involved in issues that had meaning to them, like the early work to bring (MAX) light rail out to the Expo Center. It was pretty much all community news.'

But residents also have to have a connection to their neighbors and neighborhoods, Eatwell said. Today's warp-nine lifestyles have fractured communities since people spend more time on the road commuting to and from work, with little time left to become actively engaged in the area where they live.

'There has to be something in your heart that connects you to that community,' Eatwell said. 'When you work 25 miles from home and your kid goes to school 10 miles away, you don't have that.'

To facilitate that connection, the chamber is rolling out a Live Near Work Program. Volunteer loan officers and real estate agents work with local employers and their workers to provide employees with resources to relocate closer to their employment. The benefit to living closer to where you work is not just an emotional tie to your neighborhood, but an economic boost to area businesses.

'The whole idea is to help people buy a home near where they work,' Eatwell said. 'For communities to grow, there has to be that sense of community and home. It's good for local business expansion and preserves the quality and character of our communities'

Eatwell and his wife, Cindy, a legislative policy analyst for the state of Washington, moved to Fairview from Chehalis, Wash., in 2010. Riding the tumultuous tide of economic development for more than 20 years has taught Eatwell that the foundation of community growth begins on the grassroots level.

'I have a very deep respect for the small business person,' he said. 'They put it out there every day - opening their doors and putting their families on the line. I'm focused on the small business people, to help them grow their business and support their families. I find that very exciting.'




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