The San Benito County Chamber of Commerce works to support businesses in the community, or at least that’s the idea. The Hollister City Council discontinued a $78,000 grant in 2018, and the organization is facing staff and financial stresses after a former CEO departed, leaving it unable to pay for new leadership.
When CEO Juli Vieira announced her resignation from the chamber in April 2018, she told local media that she was leaving the organization “in a good place,” in order to take a similar position in Sausalito.
At the time, former chamber board president Victor Gomez, also president of local consulting firm Pinnacle Strategy, credited Vieira with turning the chamber around, both financially and in membership. On Jan. 13, he told BenitoLink that he stands by what he said then, despite the chamber’s current financial woes.
“When she took the helm (before I came to the board), the organization was in the red and membership was dropping,” Gomez said. “She nearly doubled the membership and revenues.”
When Vieira left, she had accrued unused vacation time valued at $10,000, according to interim CEO Michelle Leonard.
Gomez declined to state Vieira’s salary or how much is presently in the chamber’s account. He said the chamber board honored Vieira’s contract and paid her the entire amount of accrued unused vacation time.
“We’re considering many issues, including what can we afford to pay a permanent CEO; do we downsize to a smaller office,” Gomez said. “Those will be ongoing discussion under our new chairman, Robert Rodriguez.”
The board hired Candace Ledesma to replace Vieira June 25, but she only stayed in the CEO role for four months.
At the time, Ledesma told BenitoLink that she had already signed three San Juan Bautista businesses on as chamber members. She said her goal was not only to attract tourists to the county, but to create foot traffic with locals. In her short stint, she showed an interested in improving collaboration with other agencies.
Things didn’t quite turn out the way Ledesma had planned, though. Gomez told BenitoLink he wasn't sure whether it was the chamber's inability to meet her compensation needs or that other opportunities became available, but Ledesma was gone Oct. 30.
The chamber board is now trying to determine what it can afford to pay a permanent CEO. “Michelle Leonard has expressed interest in the permanent position,” Gomez said. “We will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Leonard told BenitoLink on Jan. 11, “So many great things are already in motion to ensure that this coming year is full of growth and opportunities.”
She said membership fees will keep the lights on, she will continue to answer the phone and talk to anyone who walks through the door. There is also the Jan. 23 Green Business After Hours Mixer and a long list of events throughout the year.
But other than that, business is not as usual.
On May 21, 2018, the Hollister City Council rejected the chamber’s request for $390,000, or $78,000 over five years, to promote county tourism. Gomez also confirmed that San Juan Bautista and the county did not offer any grant money last year.
“I don’t like any of it,” Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said at the time. “I find it ironic that we have an annual event [Hollister Independence Rally] that brings in 50,000 tourists and we don’t spend one dollar on it, and now we want to give away $400,000 hoping that a local crew will find tourists. It’s bad financial planning.”
So, for now, there is no money to pay for promoting tourism in San Benito County.
The problem does not hang entirely on the $10,000 paid to Vieira, which she had earned. Nearly all of her compensation package was paid through membership fees. Tourism promotion, however, was funded by budget allocations from Hollister, San Juan Bautista, and San Benito County.
Since Vieira had already departed for Sausalito, Gomez spoke in the chamber’s defense.
“I don’t disagree with the mayor on the rally, and that it brings in tourism,” Gomez said. “But there’s plenty more other than bikers coming to Hollister to bring tourists to our area. We’ve seen steady increases in visitors here. We know the numbers at our local hotels and at Pinnacles National Park. They are all increasing.”
Gomez said that the Chamber of Commerce will continue to operate without funding from Hollister.
“The funding from the city [Hollister] was used exclusively for tourism marketing and promotion,” he said. “Since funding from the city was not approved we ceased all promoting of San Benito County, Pinnacles and others. Our organization’s financial structure allows us to operate with just membership and events revenue. We have never depended on public funds for general fund purposes.”
He said it’s up to Hollister to invest in tourism.
“We believe there is a value in investing in marketing for tourism and bringing outside dollars and tax revenues in to our community,” Gomez said. “Right now, the city is not investing a penny toward promoting tourism in San Benito County. The city never funded the chamber. They funded the Tourism Committee. All we did was administer the program.”
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