The future of the Tonasket Visitor’s and Business Information Center (TVBRC) was in question Feb. 12 when the mayor Patrick Walter requested the presence of representatives of the Chamber of Commerce at the City Council meeting.
Walter said he has had concerns about the management and organization of the TVBRC for some time, including questions about a high turnover rate and non-compliance with the original terms of the TVBRC which describe it as mainly be a small business center.
“There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that the chamber has failed in this to the city,” Walter said after reading an agreement between the chamber and the city about the responsibilities of the TVBRC.
Chamber president Dave Kester spoke on behalf of the organization. Walter addressed several questions to him.
The first question Walter asked was, “Why can’t you be in compliance after seven years?”
Kester said the Chamber has met its agreements with the city.
“I don’t feel we are offsides in doing what we have done in the last seven years,” he said.
Another concern for the mayor was the high turnover rate. There have been five employees there over the past two years, according to chamber secretary Lisa McCoy. The employees have left for a variety of reasons, but the current manager, Ann Zimmer, is expected to stay on for quite a while.
Kester said the turnover rate was not unusual.
“This isn’t a higher employee turnover rate then I have at my store,” Kester said.
One item of concern for the mayor was a letter from LeRoy Debes, the rural development area specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development organization based in Spokane. In the letter, Debes wrote that if the TVBRC does not fulfill their role as a facility for the assistance of small business development, the agreement with the USDA and Tonasket would be breached, causing the USDA to withdraw grant funds made for the chamber. The city would be responsible to pay back those funds already used. The letter was dated Feb. 1, 2008.
Councilmember Joyce Fancher tried to clarify how the letter came about. City manager Alice Atwood confirmed that the city’s most recent audit had been fine, which left Fancher wondering why Debes would contact the city.
“How did we go from an okay audit to this recent letter?” Fancher asked. “How did this come about?”
She then inquired if the mayor had contacted Debes.
“After the audits, did you tell him they weren’t compliant?” she asked
Walter said he had not contacted them, but then said he had recently told Debes things weren’t going well with the chamber, in his opinion.
Fancher said Walter’s contact with Debes resulted in the current situation.
“So your conversation put the city in jeopardy,” she said. “Without your instigation, we would not be in this situation.”
Councilmember Jean E. Ramsey had spoken to Debes that day.
“He told me that the intention of the letter had been for optimism,” Ramsey said. “He sees no serious problems with the chamber – he told me that himself.”
The TVBRC is currently undergoing a remodel and is not technically open for business, said Kester. The inside of the building is in disarray, due to the construction. They do not have an occupancy permit during the construction phase, he said.
Kester’s personal goals for the future of the TVBRC include increasing participation from the community as a whole, as well as the city council, he said. The city can help with grant writing, he added.
“There are also people in the area who are not members of the chamber and we want their input, particularly from the tourism industry, such as resorts in the area,” he said. “That’s the direction I’d like to go.”
Several community members spoke up on behalf of the chamber and the TVBRC.
“I’ve seen a huge improvement with the chamber. Last year, all of our members volunteered down there with the Santa House. This was something for the community, done by volunteers, at the visitor center. It was very well organized,” said Barbara Walker, a member of the Tonasket AmeriCorps group.
Local accountant Steve Mattson said he was helping the chamber with finances. Local computer expert Peter James said he was willing to help the chamber get a website going and help them with their computer issues.
All of the city council members indicated they supported allowing the chamber to continue running the TVBRC.
“I don’t see a problem with the chamber and the TVBRC,” said Councilwoman Connie Maden. “They have done an exemplary job managing the move and we need to support them as much as we can.”
Other councilmember’s agreed.
“I think that the chamber and council need to work together to bring the TVBRC forward,” said Ramsey.
Fancher thanked the chamber representatives for attending the meeting.
“I’d like to thank the chamber for coming. We need a two-way dialogue. I think you’re doing a great job and I’d like to see you get there.”
In other city business, the council approved a gas and diesel bid from Coleman Oil, who priced their regular unleaded at $2.763 a gallon and their diesel at $3.0529 a gallon.
The council also agreed to pay up to $21,840 to Highlands Associates, who provide planning services for the city, said city clerk Alice Atwood. Highlands Associates work includes land use issues and shoreline management.