CB Council discusses future of Chamber

Split council awards $60,000 for 2023…

By Mark Reaman

While making clear that some of the Crested Butte town council members feel the local Chamber of Commerce is skating on thin ice and not showing a sustainable financial future, the council agreed to contribute $60,000 from business license revenue collections to help run the Visitor’s Center at the Four-Way Stop in 2023. The Visitor’s Center building is owned by the town and has been leased by the Chamber for decades at minimal cost. 

Council voted 4-2 to follow a staff recommendation to basically award the Chamber 100% of the revenues associated with the $100 BOLT (Business Occupational Licensing Tax). 

But that comes with the requirement that the Chamber drives an engagement process with Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte to clearly define the role of the Chamber going forward and determine the future of the visitor’s centers in both towns. The council gave the Chamber representatives until August 15 to come back to the council with results based on those conditions.

Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick expressed the most frustration with Chamber representatives at the March 20 meeting. He said he has been asking for information since February of 2022 and had hoped to have goals defined and the funding issue settled by that spring, or that fall and certainly well before March of 2023. 

Town staff went over the Chamber financials and concluded that many of the budget assumptions were flawed and overly optimistic. In a staff report to the council, town manager Dara MacDonald said the town finance department estimated that based on the organization’s fund balances and membership receivables, the Chamber “could reasonably diminish their cash reserves in two to four years…”

The Chamber was requesting one of three levels for Visitor’s Center funding. For $78,193 the Chamber would operate the center 365 days a year. For $64,489 they would keep the center open 269 days and for $62,019 it would be open 239 days.

Chamber executive director Scott Clarkson along with board president Josh Futterman, vice president Kevin Koval and operations and events manager Alyssa Moore said the board had reworked the budget to separate out the cost of the two visitor’s centers from the general Chamber operations and events areas. 

Clarkson said on Tuesday after the meeting that the town contribution would allow for the Visitor’s Center at the Four-Way to be open most of the busy times, but the hope was to keep it open year-round. “We will look at subsidizing a 365-day operation from Chamber reserves,” he said. “The Mt. CB Transit Visitor’s Center is fully funded by Mt. CB for a 239-day operation that correlates to the CBMR lift operations schedule.” 

Billick asked why the Chamber was not asking that the BOLT fee be increased for business licenses to help shore up the finances. Clarkson said they were requesting to receive 100% of the BOLT revenue instead of the traditional 75% which for Crested Butte amounts to about $54,000 annually.

“We are asking for the funding, not necessarily how it is funded,” said Futterman.

MacDonald said the council could adjust the BOLT fee but that it had been the same $100 for decades.

Councilmember Gabi Prochaska asked why it was so hard for the Chamber to collect membership fees. A basic membership costs $305 and membership plummeted with COVID going from about $151,000 in revenue in 2019 to about $74,000 in 2022.

“Since 2022, memberships are coming back,” reported Clarkson. “COVID had a big impact on that. By and large in 2023 the interest in joining the Chamber is more robust.”

“The staff report says the Chamber could be out of money in two years,” reiterated Billick.

“We are working on addressing the shortfall,” responded Futterman. “This request to the town is for funding the Visitor’s Center at the Four-Way. Is it worth keeping it open 365 days a year? We are looking to cover the cost of operating the center as a subcontractor to the town.”

“My understanding was that the original intent of the Chamber operating the Visitor’s Center was to assist the local businesses,” said Billick. “So, I am not sure we agree that it is a subcontract for the town. It is an amenity for businesses. Am I misunderstanding?”

“There are mutual benefits for the businesses and the town,” said Futterman. “We want the Visitor’s Center to be there for the benefit of the entire community.”

Moore said that a lot of “small things” happen in the Visitor’s Center that benefit more than Chamber members. “We serve our business members, the community and the visitors,” explained Moore. “A lot of people come in for general information and we serve that need. Our visitors include a range of people including many young people, it’s not just for older folks.”

“If the Chamber sees themselves as subcontractors maybe we should open up the opportunity for others,” said Billick. “I am still confused. I feel like if the Chamber was presenting a service that benefitted businesses, they would step up.”

“Figuring out what the BOLT needs to be is critical for next year,” said councilmember Chris Haver. “Having the Chamber being able to explain an increase in the BOLT fee to the business community is justification for that.”

“If the Chamber provides a service, the businesses should value that,” said Prochaska.

“I’m not seeing a lot of evidence of value,” said Billick. “The skate community filled the room earlier and no one is here from the business community for this issue except Chamber board members. I’m comfortable with giving the Chamber 75% of the BOLT revenue and they can cut back the hours to whatever makes sense for them. But I still don’t feel we have good data and we asked for this discussion more than a year ago. I have no problem putting money toward this if it works, but I am not seeing it now. I am concerned with the Chamber budget and it running out of money in a couple years.”

“I am okay with allocating them 100% of the BOLT this year if we look at increasing the fee next year,” said Haver.

“It feels like every cost of doing business in town is going up,” said councilmember Mallika Magner. “I don’t want to push up the business license cost and add that to the things that might push out middle class businesses in the community. How much pressure are we putting on the community? At what point do we push people out?”

“Going from say $100 to $150 won’t push people out,” said Billick. “Again, my point is we could have had this conversation last fall. There are a series of issues including them running out of money.”

“The BOLT is different from their membership fee,” added Prochaska. “Membership is where the value is shown. The BOLT is for every business, and I feel like the Visitor’s Center does provide something good for the general community. The question is what can be done better.”

“Are Chambers still a viable thing these days?” asked Magner.

“Good question,” said Billick. “That question should have been addressed a year ago or last fall before our budget sessions. From my perspective it’s all been a random walk and we could be doing the same dance in a year.”

In response to a question, MacDonald said chambers of commerce around the state and country have shifted their funding and operations models. 

Koval disagreed that the Chamber would run out of funds in two years.

“A similar conversation took place with the council and Chamber six or seven years ago,” said Haver. “Hopefully we are moving toward better clarity. The worst-case scenario is we look for a new subcontractor to run the center.”

Prochaska moved to follow the staff recommendation of funding the Chamber at the $60,000 level for this year contingent on further discussions that would culminate with specific actions and expectations before August 15. Billick and councilmember Beth Goldstone voted against the motion while Prochaska, Haver, Magner and Jason MacMillan voted for it. Councilmember Anna Fenerty was not at the meeting.

Fourth of July…

On another related matter, the Fourth of July festivities previously have been organized by the Chamber and that is the intent for 2023 as well. Clarkson said they are waiting to see how a grant application with the town goes. “We pulled our $5,000 event request out of the BOLT request and have reapplied for a Town of CB Community Grant,” he explained. “We are delighted to put on the July Fourth Parade as a member and community service, we just cannot afford to lose a few thousand dollars producing it. Costs are greater than float registration and street vendor income.” 

“Pending the outcome of the CB Community Grant, we will be seeking private funding from our member businesses to help mitigate any projected shortfalls,” Clarkson continued. “We do view the parade and festivities as vital to the fabric of our community as well as a benefit to our retail and restaurant business, and of course our local residents, second homeowners and the many visitors planning to enjoy their holiday here with family and friends. We do plan to make it all happen on July 4, 2023.” 

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