The city of Hermiston will take over operation of the Hermiston Conference Center and the Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce will move to a new location in 2018.
The city council voted 6-0 in favor of the plan during a special meeting Tuesday night after hearing testimony from a standing-room only crowd that spilled out into the lobby of city hall.
All but one of the public comments was against the plan to some degree, including several current and past chamber board members and ambassadors who said they were disappointed to see how strained the relationship between the chamber and city had become.
“At one time we were looked at as a valued and trusted partner,” chamber board chair Shirley Parsons said.
City councilors and staff said they had a great respect for the chamber’s value to the community and the “excellent” job that the chamber was doing. They said it was a problem of finances and using all city facilities as effectively as possible.
“It’s a question of resources,” city councilor John Kirwan said.
The Hermiston Conference Center was created when the city purchased an old Safeway building in 1994 and the community raised $600,000 to renovate it. The city has been paying the chamber of commerce to run the center.
According to a presentation by assistant city manager Mark Morgan, in 2015-2016 the center had gross revenues of $216,900, split between event revenues and $91,100 of transient room tax revenue contributed by the city. The gross expenses for running the center were $198,700. The $18,200 profit was split three ways between the chamber, capital improvements and the city.
Morgan said in the current fiscal year, event revenues for the center were down 35 percent, mostly due to competition from the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center. He said that put the chamber in a bad position, and caused instances where the city’s parks and recreation department was not able to book the center for recreational classes in the hope that a paying customer would instead fill the slot.
As a result, city staff proposed a plan that would see the parks and recreation department move into the current chamber offices and take over the building’s management, in order to better balance EOTEC and the conference center.
“There are a lot of opportunities for synergy between the two facilities,” Morgan said. “It gives us more control of scheduling.”
The city is not contractually obligated to offer office space to the chamber, but the plan included an offer for the chamber to move into the basement of the Carnegie Library across from city hall, which the city is spending $125,000 to remodel.
Chamber supporters were not fans of that idea. Bryan Wolfe pointed out that when potential new businesses come into town it’s usually the chamber of commerce, not city hall, where they go first for information and to get a feel for the town. He wanted to know if a basement was where the city wanted to send those people. Pat Hart asked the same thing.
“I don’t believe you’ll find a progressive community in Oregon or in the Northwest that you will find their chamber of commerce in a windowless basement,” Hart said.
Chamber board member Bob Green said it seemed the problems stem from the misrepresentations of EOTEC, not the conference center, and said EOTEC “was never envisioned to replace the conference center and was not promoted that way.”
Several commenters questioned the city’s motives, asking whether the move was just a temporary step toward selling the building for a profit or re-purposing it into a new city hall or a youth center. They also expressed a concern that events like the Festival of Trees, which organizers preferred to keep at the conference center, would be forced to move out to EOTEC to make room for city-sponsored events.
City councilors pushed back on all of those concerns, insisting repeatedly that the building would continue to operate as a conference and community center and would still be open to events like the Festival of Trees.
“The talk of the conference center going away or being shut down has never been a conversation I’ve been a part of,” councilor Doug Primmer said.
Councilor Doug Smith said the city “meant no disrespect” by offering up the basement of the Carnegie Library; it is simply the only space the city had available to give. He said after $125,000 worth of renovations it would be a much more attractive space, and noted that the chamber was free to pursue other options.
In the end the council voted to not renew its contract with the chamber in 2018, and to offer the Carnegie Library space to the chamber for its offices. Because the chamber’s conference center manager recently resigned, the city will also provide, at no cost to the chamber, a parks and recreation staff member to fill that position for the duration of 2017 as a way to begin training city staff to run the center in 2018.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.