Last month, the Culver City Council decided to take a stance that it did not think the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce was doing enough for them and the community. The council decided to not pay its $135 annual dues — a small amount for both the city and chamber, but a huge gut-punch to the chamber’s public perception.

It’s the most recent example of just how political the chamber is. But this political decision seems a tad harsh, abrupt without efforts to address issues before announcing the divorce, and, on top of that, unjustified.

Since business development/recruitment duties were largely taken off its back — a couple years back transferred by local governments to Economic Development of Central Oregon — the chamber’s one continual focus has been pushing tourism and local events, working to bring more people into our county to visit, potentially to stay longer. Their message is always, “Come visit Jefferson County,” not “Come check out Madras.” That consistent effort to promote county tourism can’t help but bring traffic to the business strip of Culver.

A good case in point, the chamber’s active backing of the scenic bikeway, a project driven by two Madras residents. The bikeway could have made a more direct route from Madras to the viewpoints above Lake Billy Chinook and back, but instead a focus was made to push the route toward Metolius and Culver, to be inclusive of the neighboring towns.

Obviously the chamber hasn’t been the be-all, end-all for Culver. It’s not for Madras and its businesses either. But, for 12 months of effort from the local chamber, Culver city government and its citizens were getting beyond full value from its $135 dues.

Nearly every other town or cluster of communities across the United States has a chamber organization, and every one fights the same battle: defending their relevance, their impact, their importance. Detractors always have the same complaint: what does the chamber do specifically for me to earn my dues? It’s a nuanced debate, for sure. In general, chambers will not specifically sell a business’ wares for them, but will indeaver to improve a community and its business climate to help the said business sell more of its own wares.

For his part, Chamber Executive Director Joe Krenowicz is taking the very high road. Instead of blowing back and being defensive, his response has been to recognize Culver’s disappointment and frustration and to seek a meeting with Culver officials in hopes of establishing a different path. Culver has also brought forth the notion of establishing its own business organization, and Krenowicz has said the chamber will do all it can to help them, if that’s the direction Culver wants to take.

Maybe it’s all for the best. Maybe it’s time the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce takes another hard look at itself. Maybe it’s time to make the chamber a fully Madras-focused entity.

It isn’t the first time that concept has been mentioned in this space: Crooked River Ranch has its own chamber; Camp Sherman has its own recreation association; Warm Springs promotes itself; Culver apparently doesn’t want a Madras-based chamber representing them and is hungry to go it alone. Maybe the Madras-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce should be just the Madras Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber has about 300 members. Of those, about 75 percent have Madras addresses. Only five have Culver addresses. Many of the out-of-Madras chamber members (most of whom are from Deschutes County) would likely remain in the chamber as they’re regionally based, tourism dependent businesses.

If the Madras chamber is so Madras-dominant — and judging by its membership, it should be — then why not make its efforts Madras dominant? By focusing its role to only Madras, its events, organizations and businesses, the chamber could make a bigger impact than by trying to serve the entire county.

One of the reasons given for Culver dropping their membership is a frustration that the Bad Monkey, a restaurant-lounge building in a prime spot in Culver, has remained empty for months and months. Well, the nice Apple Peddler building in Madras has been empty for years. Sonny’s newly-remodeled restaurant and bar has been closed for half a year, and the former Meet Market restaurant-bar has been closed for months.

If the chamber could, it would leap to fill all these businesses, in Madras, Culver or otherwise.

Again, the task of drawing new business to the area was essentially pulled off its plate when local governments joined forces with EDCO, the Bend-based regional economic development organization. The vital duty of bringing business to the area, for the past several years, has fallen on the shoulders of EDCO’s county directors, originally Wayne Pearson and for this past year, Janet Brown.

Apparently, Culver City Council in September was ready to drop its membership with EDCO, too, until they were reminded that the organization was key in bringing Mid-Columbia Lumber, and a rail spur, to the former Seaswirl site.

The “go it alone” attitude appears rampant in Culver right now.

Maybe the Culver community can do better working its own program — and maybe the local chamber can do more for the large core of its membership by focusing all of its effort, essentially, on Madras.

The great community of Culver gave Madras High a nice favor by letting them use their football field this fall while a new stadium is constructed at Madras High. Maybe the Culver City Council is doing Madras another favor by saying it can keep its chamber.

But the timing is discouraging. In a few months, Jefferson County will celebrate its 100th year. Of course, as soon as the county was established, a battle raged over which community should be the county seat. That battle left bitterness and a Madras-Culver schism lasting for decades. Now, as we approach our centennial year, an all-for-one spirit remains elusive.

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