After promoting Santa Barbara arts and culture for six months at the Downtown Organization in 1988, he decided to try leading the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, which didn’t have a lot of direction or funding, Cushman recalled. It was a time when the chamber had 17 full-time staffers who built business through face-to-face conversation, not through the Internet, he said.
“Things moved at a slower pace,” Cushman said. “Everything was intended to be person to person. The big difference from now is that the chamber was slower and based on relationships.”
Twenty-four years and several recessions later, the chamber is embarking on another transformation as its longest-serving president steps down. Shortly before Cushman announced his retirement, longtime vice president Marcia Reed resigned. Between them, they had 43 years of experience at the chamber.
Cushman said he had been talking about retirement for the past five years but the organization recently changed its fiscal year to July from January, which prompted “a lot of people (to make a) transition.” The former UCSB baseball star said he plans to start a business development and fundraising company, visit London for Wimbledon, and pursue his interests in art.
The one-time Los Angeles Dodgers recruit, who had a short professional career, even joked about picking up a baseball and getting back in the game.
“I think I can still bring it,” he laughed. “The Dodgers can probably use someone in the bullpen.”
Cushman asked if it’s healthy to have someone lead an organization like the chamber for 20 or 30 years.
“You only have so many tricks you can pull out of the bag,” he said. “When someone asks if we should do this, we would say we tried that and it didn’t work five years ago or that didn’t work 10 years ago.”
Chamber marketing director Wendy Figueiredo left in early May and was followed by Reed, who took a position as development director of the nonprofit Casa Serena, which supports residential recovery homes for women. While the timing of the departures wasn’t coordinated, there has been a change in direction at the chamber over the last five or six years, said Reed, who noted that the culture is evolving to one of digital correspondence from personal interaction.
But a major factor has been the economy.
“As soon as you see a downturn in the economy like we had, and this one was so huge and lasted so long, I think that everybody was wanting something to happen,” she said. “We couldn’t pull it out of the magic hat and make it happen.”
Membership has declined about 10 percent over the past three years, she said. Cushman said credibility is the key to growing membership.
“In the end, it’s about who do you trust,” he said. “I think that’s the real power of chambers of commerce. You can call and talk to a real person. Most of our consumers trust the chambers so that’s the value we have to play off. I think people are becoming less trusting of the Internet and want to talk to a real person.”
“The world has just changed,” she told Noozhawk. “We’re coming to the other side of a great financial upheaval and businesses will have to think about doing things differently to be successful and grow, and the chamber has to be a part of that.”
While the nearby Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce abandoned its bricks-and-mortar location in favor of a virtual office in 2009, there are no plans for the Santa Barbara chamber to vacate its suite of offices in the Lobero Building at 924 Anacapa St.
Over the years, Cushman has boosted capital for the chamber by growing the Business Leaders of Santa Barbara Council to more than 120 members, joined more than 100 nonprofit boards, raised more than $60 million for local projects and produced more than 1,000 events. He spearheaded Alameda Park’s Kids World project, an artistic, 10,000-square-foot playground that was built by more than 4,000 volunteers in five days.
The chamber plans to name an interim president until it finds a replacement, and Cushman will stay on as president until midsummer. But it will be difficult to replace his business sense, Reed said.
“He has an incredible curious nature and business savvy,” she said. “He knows the market, he knows every storefront available, he knows triple-net lease rates and all the development. It takes someone as curious as Steve. If you want to know something that’s going on, he knows.”
While the chamber will not be the same without Cushman’s dedication and direction, it has a chance to be more board-driven, said board member Laura McIver, general manager of the Canary Hotel.
“We really want to have someone help us continue to be relevant in the community and continue to provide our membership that support and guidance as Steve has done,” she said. “The business of the chamber has changed with the technology and its speed, and it needs someone who has forward-thinking energy.”
But as digital communication advances, it’s important to get back to the chamber’s roots, Cushman cautioned.
“Whoever runs the chamber, it’s important that they are willing to meet with anyone, whether they are in government, have an existing business or have an idea to start a businesses,” he said. “That’s how you continue economic development.”