Journal Express, Knoxville, IA

October 25, 2013

Council, Chamber renew plan to work cooperatively

Steve Woodhouse

Knoxville — The Knoxville City Council and Chamber of Commerce Board met in joint session Thursday night and, in the end, both sides agreed to try to form a joint subcommittee, with the Knoxville Raceway, to work together to promote the town. 

The council chambers were full, as board members, City candidates and other interested parties attended the special meeting. 

"I'd like to see us work together better," Mayor Don Zoutte said. 

Councilor Carolyn Formanek asked what the Chamber's role is. She followed that up by asking what the Chamber's goal is. 

Chamber Board President Lori Bailey said a strategic planning meeting was recently held and the Chamber's focus is helping Knoxville businesses become vibrant and promote the community. The board has been focused on public relations, economic development and tourism. 

The discussion between Formanek and Bailey continued before Chamber Executive Director Larissa Van Donselaar asked the council why it was seeking information on Chamber goals when it was the council who called the meeting. She said the Chamber had met goals the council had asked of them.

For years, half of the City's hotel/motel tax revenue has been given to the Chamber. According to Van Donselaar, the most recent amount was $25,000. 

Formanek said the council does not want to "double up" economic development work if the Chamber is already providing them. City Manager Harold Stewart has been charged with leading economic development efforts on behalf of the City. The Chamber sees its role in this capacity is to provide information to potential newcomers.

Van Donselaar told the council that if they felt there was "bad blood" between the City and the Chamber, to let her know. Formanek then asked about the number of events the Chamber hosts, as people consider entertainment offered when choosing to locate in a town. Councilor Dave Roozeboom asked how the Chamber would feel if the City planned more events. 

"We have limited resources with events," Bailey said. She said the Chamber is focused on helping its members. Van Donselaar added that membership has told the Chamber that events do not help their businesses.

"We are working for (the membership)," Van Donselaar said. 

"Events are meant to showcase a community," Formanek said. She would like to see at least four major events - one for each season - in Knoxville to bring people to town. Formanek continued by saying that events show what a community has and can do. This may prompt people to come back. 

Van Donselaar said the Chamber has thrown successful events, but most have not increased revenues for Chamber members.

"Events do not pay our bills," Van Donselaar said. 

"I assume you're tied to pacifying the members," Roozeboom said. 

Board member Zabrina Breazeale said the Chamber exists to help the City as a whole, but the Chamber has to take care of its members. She said this is done, not just through events, and the Chamber should also help smaller businesses.

"We have to foster them and hold them close," Breazeale said. 

Councilor April Verwers asked what services are provided. Roozeboom pointed out that the Chamber's landlord list has helped his business.

"It doesn't take a whole lot to make it worthwhile," Roozeboom said. 

The discussion turned to how businesses have changed. Some businesses do not want to remain open past hours. From there, the Chamber and council began to talk about their communication issues. 

"I thought we were (communicating better)," Van Donselaar said. She added that the Chamber has an open door policy and she regularly attends council meetings. 

Verwers said she would like to schedule a joint meeting with the council and Chamber board and ensure that the meetings happen. 

"I think we could communicate better that way," Verwers said. 

Concern was expressed about Open Meetings Law requirements whenever more than two council members are present at a meeting to discuss business. Roozeboom felt that the openness and presence of the public may inhibit free discussion. 

"We don't have to have the whole council," Councilor Tim Pitt said. He added that he represents the council on other commissions and boards, and the council members trust each other to share the information gained. As for events, Pitt believes existing events, such as Nationals and Bike Nite, should be more celebrated and promoted.

The consensus of Chamber Board members and council showed that the idea of a subcommittee was favorable. Board member and mayoral candidate Brian Hatch volunteered, as did Verwers. People associated with the Knoxville Raceway were at the meeting, but none of them were there to represent the track in an official capacity or make commitments. 

Working together was something everyone who spoke feels should be done to make Knoxville the town they want it to be. Formanek said it has been difficult to get different entities in town to work together. She believes it would take "a miracle" to make that happen. A business owner herself, Formanek said she has not been at a Chamber Board meeting in a long time, except to complain. 

Van Donselaar said she felt communication was already strong, as she and Assistant City Manager Dylan Feik have a good working relationship. The two talk often. Van Donselaar said that the Chamber has a small budget, and retaining members in a lackluster economy can be difficult. Members weigh the benefit of joining the Chamber before paying dues. 

Chuck Day, who was associated with the Chamber for years, said his first thought after sitting through the meeting was that "nobody knows what a Chamber does." 

"It's not a promotional arm for the city," Day said. 

As this discussion came to a close, Van Donselaar pointed out, for a second time, that the City of Knoxville is not a Chamber member. She asked the council why that is.

"$25,000 doesn't qualify as membership?" Zoutte asked. 

Board member Mikol Sesker had the last word of the discussion, in which she thanked the council for the invitation and for opening the line of communication. Verwers and Hatch were going to set up a time to meet as a subcommittee.