A couple walk past an empty storefront in the 800 block of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara on Friday afternoon.
A couple walk past an empty storefront in the 800 block of State Street in downtown Santa Barbara on Friday afternoon. Downtown economic development is among the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce’s goals for 2021. (Brooke Holland / Noozhawk photo)

The Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce’s annual membership meeting this week offered reflections on the local impact of the coronavirus crisis and a forward-looking business community.

Kirsten McLaughlin, board chairwoman of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce.

Kirsten McLaughlin, board chairwoman of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce. (Santa Barbara Partners in Education photo)

Nearly 100 chamber members gathered via a Zoom webcast for the business advocacy organization’s meeting highlighting the board members who have helped lead the chamber through the months-long pandemic, while also celebrating the future.

Chamber president and CEO Kristen Miller welcomed the group compacted into square Zoom thumbnails on a screen.

“I wish we could be toasting with a glass of champagne at one of our fabulous member locations,” she said Thursday, “but I guess we are going to have to wait a little longer for that.”

The boards of the former Carpinteria Valley, Goleta and Santa Barbara chambers of commerce united in a historic merger to guide the organization through the end of 2020. The Carpinteria Valley Chamber of Commerce, the Goleta Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region officially formed the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce in July after months of strategy meetings with their leaders.

In addition to providing a unified voice for the business community, the three chambers joined to create a better business environment out of the COVID-19-driven economic meltdown.

“Since uniting the chambers from Goleta to Carpinteria, we have focused on helping businesses navigate these unprecedented times,” Miller said.

Business leaders from a variety of industries set the mission, course and policy direction of the area’s premier business association, according to the chamber. The merged chamber, representing 1,100 regional members and 70,000 jobs, is the largest business organization on the South Coast.

During a span of six months, three co-chairs helped lead the transition to a regional chamber.

Departing chamber board co-chairmen Curtis Lopez of the Carpinteria Lions Club, Santa Barbara City College Foundation CEO Geoff Green, and Noozhawk founder and publisher Bill Macfadyen offered remarks at the meeting.

Kirsten McLaughlin, incoming board chairwoman of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce, also spoke.

“It is an honor and a privilege to serve as your chair in the first full year of our newly merged chamber,” said McLaughlin, who is Cox Communications’ market vice president.

The chamber had a busy year in 2020, and the organization is looking forward to 2021, she said.

“The last year has been incredibly challenging, and it has been amazing to see how we have come together as a business community to work through these challenges,” McLaughlin said.

The Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce has ambitious goals this year, including beefing up economic development in downtown Santa Barbara, addressing the ongoing homelessness crisis along the South Coast, and tackling other community challenges head-on.

Hospitality and tourism are a critical part of the chamber’s work, McLaughlin said, noting that those sectors are among the hardest hit by a continuing economic crisis and the pandemic.

“One in every three jobs lost during the pandemic was in this industry,” she said. “We have worked closely with Visit Santa Barbara to support our local hospitality businesses, and we look forward to continuing this powerful collaboration in 2021.”

The South Coast’s business community is stronger “if we all work together,” Green said, adding that the future is bright for the chamber of commerce and the region.

The organization’s economic development committee is heavily focused on filling vacant storefronts along the State Street corridor in downtown Santa Barbara.

“We represent and it is our responsibility to be responsive to the entire region, but we also know downtown Santa Barbara vitality impacts the entire South Coast,” Green said. “That will remain a focus into 2021.”

Before networking with attendees in breakout rooms using Zoom, Miller highlighted the chamber’s Roadmap to Recovery for businesses on the South Coast. Pandemic response and economic recovery efforts will be top priorities for the chamber in 2021.

“Nothing in this document is a demand,” Miller said. “It’s a plan.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout have brought massive and unforeseen effects to the business community in Santa Barbara County, Miller said. The chamber is fueled by passion and expertise to lay out a plan and to take action to help get South Coast businesses of all sizes back on their feet safely.

“Our responsibility, as we see it, is to provide a thoughtful, researched, consensus-based plan of actions for our members and the business community,” Miller said, adding that data need to be considered when making policy decisions.

The Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce’s board members for 2021.

The Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce’s board members for 2021. (Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce photo)

The chamber embarked on creating a plan for guiding business recovery, based on its best efforts during the next six months and beyond.

Miller said businesses should be allowed to operate if they are following a COVID-19 safety five-step method: all staff and patrons wear a mask; sanitizing and hand-washing; social distancing at least 6 feet apart; proper ventilation or conducting business outdoors; and plastic walls or creating other barriers between people.

“From the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) on down to the county’s attestation process, these five steps have been determined as the most effective responses to operating safely,” she said. “These methods do work, and we must do them all.”

The chamber also is advocating for local schools to be able to open and operate safely using the COVID-19 safety five-step method, Miller said.

Lopez, a sixth-generation Carpinterian and a retired senior executive for Santa Barbara-based Mission Linen, said 2020 was difficult for community members, especially for the small businesses and the employees unable to work as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“The dire economic crisis created a unique opportunity for our three chambers to merge,” said Lopez, who served as the Carpinteria Valley board chairman. “We will remain laser-focused on helping the (Santa Barbara) county and all three cities (Carpinteria, Santa Barbara and Goleta) for the reopening of our economy.”

Macfadyen, who served as Goleta board chairman for the last two years, said the unified chamber is successfully representing its members’ interests in direct meetings with Santa Barbara County elected officials and executive officers as well as Public Health Department staff “as we make the case for businesses to be allowed to operate safely.”

He said he is “proud of how our new chamber has so quickly come together and established a similar commitment to advocacy, public policy and service.”

“That vision has enabled us to continue to support our members during this turbulent time — providing critical information, updates, connections and webinars,” he added.

Macfadyen noted a new era for air service options in the greater South Coast region, with new destinations for residents, tourists and businesses. Southwest Airlines will offer departures to Las Vegas, Denver and Oakland from the Santa Barbara Airport beginning in April.

“I believe it is no coincidence that our chamber’s high profile, effectiveness and partnership with the Santa Barbara Airport and Visit Santa Barbara helped persuade Southwest Airlines to establish operations here,” he said.

“Southwest’s arrival will be bringing exciting opportunities for our regional business community — in just a matter of weeks.”

The Towbes Group was a title sponsor of the annual membership meeting’s festivities, and supporting sponsors included Brown & Brown Insurance, Carpe Data, LinkedIn, Montecito Bank & Trust and Village Properties.

The chamber also thanked outgoing board members. It also recognized returning board members and honored the newly elected executive committee. The organization welcomed a new board member, Brett Tande, chief financial officer at Cottage Health.

Noozhawk staff writer Brooke Holland can be reached at bholland@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.