Chambers changing: Business groups in Fruita and Palisade undergo transitions in leadership positions

Fruita Chamber of Commerce
While the sign outside the Fruita Area Chamber of Commerce remains the same, there are other signs of change for the business organization following the resignation of executive director Mary Lou Wilson.

Efforts are under way to hire executive directors at both the Fruita and Palisade chambers of commerce following changes in leadership at the two business organizations.

In Fruita, the president of the chamber board of directors says executive director Mary Lou Wilson resigned in February after the board discussed a

no-drinking policy for chamber staff and volunteers working at chamber social events. But Wilson denies the policy was connected with her resignation.

In Palisade, Bayley Rodgers resigned as executive director after the chamber board raised issues with Rodgers working for a nonprofit organization on the side.

Economic downturns often affect business organizations like chambers of commerce, says Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. “During stressful business times, there are changes and expectations of staff. You do tend to see more turnover and changes at chambers and other organizations.”

Joel Kincaid, president of the Fruita Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors, says Wilson was not forced out. “We did not force the resignation. We did not ask for it.”

But Kincaid says there was tension — as well as some policy changes Wilson wouldn’t accept.

Chamber members complained about staff and volunteers drinking alcoholic beverages during social events sponsored by the chamber, he says. The board decided to implement a ban on staff and volunteer consumption of alcohol while they’re working at chamber events.

Wilson says her resignation was unrelated to the policy. “That was put into effect last September, right before the Fall Festival,” she says. “There were issues with some volunteers and we adopted the policy.”

“The reason I left had nothing to do with that,” Wilson says. “It has to do with the change in attitude and culture and philosophy of the new board members and about some accusations about some things that were unwarranted.”

Wilson says she was left out of the loop — as well as some key meetings. “I was never talked to. … They had several secret meetings and I couldn’t work under that kind of stress.”

Kincaid declined to discuss more details about what he termed a human resources issue. But he says the “no drinking” policy is common for local chambers of commerce. “We did a lot of homework to make sure we weren’t being unreasonable,” he says.

The rule also applies to chamber board members while they act as volunteers at chamber events, he says.

Kincaid says the policy change is a natural development for a chamber evolving from a social to a business group. The chamber has grown from about 120 members to more than 400 over the past seven years, he says.

While the rule might be common, it’s not in force at the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. “We do not have a stated policy that staff members cannot drink at chamber events,” Schwenke says. “There’s an expectation that they’ll act in a professional manner and they do.”

At Fruita, chamber membership was on the rise prior to Wilson taking over executive director about five years ago. But Kincaid acknowledges much of the growth occurred during Wilson’s tenure, even in the midst of an economic downturn. “None of us will argue — she’s done wonders for the chamber,” he says.

While Wilson says she resigned, Fruita Mayor Ken Henry believes she was forced out of the position. “When you deal with a lot of volunteers and you have a plan that’s working, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to make a change,” says Henry, who’s worked in the real estate and mortgage businesses.

At the Palisade Chamber of Commerce, Rodgers was replaced on an interim basis by Monique Strack, the wife of Jerome Strack, general manager of the Wine Country Inn at Palisade and chairman of the chamber board.

Jerome Strack says the board had an issue with Rodgers working for a nonprofit organization on the side. The board was interviewing candidates in late March and anticipated hiring a new director by early April.

The Fruita chamber is partly funded by the City of Fruita, with local government contributing the use of a building, waiving property taxes and providing a $23,000 annual grant funded by tax dollars.

Henry defends the city’s financial support. “It’s important we have an advocate for the business community. It’s important to bring in people who spend money.”

As part of that effort, the city developed a weekly farmer’s market. The chamber has agreed to oversee the event this year, but will receive financial help from the city. The city is contributing $8,000, including $5,000 for marketing costs, for the event that runs every Saturday from mid-June through mid-September.

The chamber also runs a buy local campaign that encourages Fruita residents to consider local businesses before buying goods and services elsewhere. Henry estimates more than 80 percent of sales tax dollars from Fruita residents go to Grand Junction.

Kincaid says chamber board members realize buying locally isn’t always practical. For example, the city hired a Grand Junction marketing firm, Cobb and Associates, while Kincaid himself owns a marketing firm in Fruita. To further complicate the issue, half of Fruita chamber members come from outside Fruita.

Kincaid says he serves on a Fruita tourism board that promotes efforts to bring dollars into the city.

The city contributes $120,000 annually for local economic development, Henry says. “A positive business community helps everyone.”

Yet, Henry and others wonder why a director who expanded membership no longer works for the Fruita chamber while the board searches for her replacement.