Ken Oplinger is nearing the end of his three-month “listening tour” as the new president and CEO of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce.
After speaking with more than 70 locals and organizations, Oplinger said his focus has turned to action.
Arriving in June after leaving the helm of the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry in Washington, Oplinger is confident that his fresh eyes and more than 21 years of leadership experience will be as great an asset to Santa Barbara as others have hoped.
Most people have told Oplinger that finding affordable workforce housing and transportation are concerning issues, along with aggressive State Street panhandling and the delayed Highway 101 widening project.
“I’m trying to get a good cross section,” he told Noozhawk. “We have a lot of employers who have a hard time filling positions. We will not be able to build our way out of this problem.”
Oplinger said the Santa Barbara chamber intends to make a commuter rail program a high priority, as well as forming partnerships with other chambers and areas that have a more reasonable cost of living.
“It’s time to get this done,” he said. “In the next several months you’ll see some exciting changes. We certainly don’t want to get Santa Barbara-centric.”
The Santa Barbara and Goleta chambers recently hosted the first of what could be many joint board meetings.
Oplinger said the Santa Barbara and Goleta Valley chambers and other officials are also working to create a regional economic development center.
“I think together as three counties we pretty much have anything someone could want,” he said, referring to San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties and noting that northern Santa Barbara County has more room to spread out and less expensive housing.
Oplinger, an Arizona native, said this spring had seemed perfect timing for he and wife, Diana, and their 10-year-old daughter, Rachel, to make the transition back to California after 10 years near the Canadian border.
His family recently found a home in Oxnard, experiencing the same “sticker shock” as other employees who find they can’t afford to live within Santa Barbara city limits.
Oplinger had previously served as the president and CEO of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce for five years, director of government affairs at the Fremont Chamber of Commerce for three years and on a chamber staff right out of college in Oregon.
He said he’s looking forward to seeing chamber enrollment — currently at 875 members — climb closer to the glory days of more than 1,500 members, and to once again embrace the title as “the voice of business in the Santa Barbara region.”
“It’s fun,” Oplinger said. “Everyone has just been really, really nice. Whatever has happened in the past is in the past. This is the primary organization for marketing your business.”