Orcas Chamber 101

Most people know that Orcas has a chamber of commerce. But its exact purpose is not always clear. Susan Gudgell, chamber board president, is hoping to change that.

“We recognize that there is particular synergy between the businesses in our community. We are basically an economic ecosystem, and we see every individual and every business as an integral part,” she said.

Gudgell says the chamber is different from other organizations that promote commerce partly because Orcas is governed by the county – not a township. The chamber is charged with supporting and promoting tourism, including running a visitors’ office, which in most towns is a separate function.

The chamber also produces a yearly map and guide, holds quarterly sunset mixers and an annual member meeting, maintains a website with a calendar of events and member listings, sends out an weekly E-blast and helps produce the Shakespeare Festival, Bird and Wildlife Fest, July 4th celebrations, Eastsound Artwalk, Farm Tour and end-of-year holiday activities.

And as one of the only broad-based membership groups in the island’s main village, the organization often has a role in what happens in Eastsound. The board is currently working with the Eastsound Planning Review Committee and the county regarding improvements in the village.

“We know we have to be a strong engine here,” Gudgell said.

The chamber is managed by part-time Executive Director Lance Evans with help from staff members Lisa Boyd and Heather Johnson as well as volunteers. The board of directors includes vice president Colleen Smith Armstrong (this author), secretary Mary Clure, Charles Dalton, Mike Stolemeier, Mia Kartiganer, Kim Morgan, Shannon Borg, Audra Query, Cindy Morgan and Lee Horswill.

“Our primary goal is to represent our business community and promote the island,” Evans said. “We are in a unique situation where those fit us well – not all chambers have dual roles … I like working at the chamber because it allows me to get to know business owners and employees I wouldn’t normally have a relationship with by just paying for something at the county.”

By many accounts, the island’s economy is on an upswing. Last May through September, ferry ridership from Anacortes to Orcas was 8.7 percent higher than the year before. This was the highest percentage increase of any of the islands. In addition, sales and lodging tax has been climbing for the past two years, retail sales are up and construction is getting back on track, according to the San Juan County Economic Development Council.

This year the chamber has four goals: promoting and supporting local businesses through online marketing, workshops and member gatherings; collaborating with the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau on tourist-related marketing and services; helping shoulder season activities flourish; and work with county representatives on Orcas-specific needs. Gudgell says it’s important for business owners to become a chamber member even if they don’t see how it directly benefits their enterprise.

“Investing energy in the chamber supports our business community as a whole, which in turn helps nonprofits, provides employment and makes our community stronger,” Gudgell said. “Membership nurtures those island neighbors who provide us with business options right here on Orcas.”

For more information, visit orcasislandchamber.com.