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Staying Neutral is Sometimes the Only Realistic Option

Author: Carl Howell
July, 2004 Issue

The scenario: Big Business knocks on the Chamber of Commerce door. The Chamber of Commerce rolls out the red carpet and strikes up the band! It's a scene from a 1930's musical dollar signs flashing, happy townsfolk break into a spontaneous chorus line, singing, "We're in the money."
If only it were so easy!

In mid June, after news broke that the city of Rohnert Park was entertaining the idea of negotiating with the Graton Rancheria and Station Casinos to possibly build an Indian gaming resort in Rohnert Park, we sent an e-mail survey to our members eliciting their opinions.

As information started to become available and front-page stories were appearing in the local newspapers, heated debate ensued and factions started dividing the community. The Chamber of Commerce was asked to take a stand.

It's a given that the Chamber of Commerce is pro-business. Supporting business is what we do. When a big corporation comes to a community bringing jobs with good wages and benefits, offering business-to-business opportunities, we roll out the red carpet and strike up the bandÉusually.
If only it were so easy!

Remember, the membership of the Rohnert Park Chamber of Commerce is the business folks in Rohnert Park, who also mostly happen to live there as well. They're no different from the other people who live in the city, perhaps a little more focused on issues that will help their businesses to prosper.

They care about their community and want it to be successful, and for everyone to share in that success.
The Chamber Board of Directors agreed to meet with the proponents and the opponents of the proposed casino. They listened to representatives from Station Casinos, members of the Graton Rancheria and spokespersons for the labor unions. They heard about the history of the Native American people's quest for tribal status. They saw pictures of other Station Casino properties. Union representatives spoke of jobs for the construction trades as well as good wages and benefits for the casino employees.

The board listened to people who are opposed to the casino for religious reasons, and to people who have concerns about housing, traffic, crime and quality of life.
They asked a lot of questions.

When a big corporation comes to a community bringing jobs with good wages and benefits, offering business-to-business opportunities, it's a no-brainer for the Chamber of Commerce, right?
If only it were so easy!

This was a difficult decision, not because it's a casino. It wouldn't be an easier decision if it were a prison, or a giant agribusiness use or even a theme parkÑall uses that have divided communities in the past. There is no denying that a casino would be an economic windfall for the community. Even without some kind of formal revenue-sharing agreement, more people employed making good wages with benefits would have a rising tide effect for other working people. There would be more money to spend at local retailers and restaurants. The huge resort hotel, restaurant and casino would generate all kinds of business-to-business opportunities. It would also signal change.

There is no denying the concerns of the Rohnert Park residents. Highway 101 is already impacted by traffic. A casino isn't the first thing that comes to most people's minds when you talk about a family-oriented community; and because most Indian gaming takes place on more rural or isolated reservations, there aren't a lot of statistics available about casinos adjacent to urban areas. And not everyone is comfortable with change.

Just like the community, the Chamber Board of Directors represented the many sides of the debate. Some were outright opposed. Some saw the casino as a catalyst to jumpstart an otherwise sluggish economy. Still others were undecided. They didn't have enough valid information to make a decision. One member voiced what I have frequently heard many chamber members say: "This would be so great for my business, but it's not something I want to see in the community where I'm raising my family.Ó After much discussion, the Rohnert Park Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors voted not to take a stand on the proposed casino. They felt that by remaining neutral they could continue to best represent the needs of their membership, the existing businesses, without becoming fractionalized over a proposal that raises more questions than answers.

I'm sure there are some who disagree with the board's decision. There are proponents who say only good things. And there are opponents who see only the bad. I think the board's decision is realistic. They will continue to advocate for businesses in the community and, in doing so, hold the expectation that economic vitality is also a quality-of-life issue.

Big Business knocks on the Chamber of Commerce door. The Chamber of Commerce rolls out the red carpet and strikes up the band!

If only it were so easy!


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