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Chamber reluctantly offers assistance to the Chamber
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Acting as the Ceres Redevelopment Agency (CRA) board, members of the Ceres City Council have agreed to one more year of funding for the Ceres Chamber of Commerce.

At its Dec. 10 meeting, the council voted 4-0 to provide $21,000 for Chamber projects, stipulating that the funds are not to be used for salaries or other operations.

The grant was tied in with the city's approval of a business plan for 2008.

The lump-sum grant to the Chamber is designated to support:

• A quarterly Chamber magazine at a cost of $12,000;

• Hispanic and home-based business mailers totaling $6,000;

• $3,000 in start-up costs for a Business Seminar series.

Citing the importance of a Chamber of Commerce, the CRA set a precedent in September 2005 of financially bailing out the Chamber. The city tightened down subsequent requests for money, saying they wanted to see the Chamber realize certain goals, such as expand membership.

Chamber leaders asked for a lump-sum amount at the outset of the year feeling that they are not in a financial position to negotiate reimbursement on a project-by-project basis.

The CRA intends to grant any 2009 funds on a project basis. But the future of assistance is questionable. Mayor Anthony Cannella and Councilman Chris Vierra have been advocates for the Chamber weaning itself from city money. Cannella said his vote would probably be his last, a sentiment echoed by Councilman Ken Lane.

City Manager Brad Kilger said the Chamber has made a substantial improvement in its operations and has a "more business-like approach." He said the infusion of CRA cash means the Chamber will have a good chance of completing their 2008 projects.

Chamber Chair Alan Love acknowledged mistakes made by the Chamber in the past but said "we've turned the corner ... with a great staff."

"I believe we can accomplish what we say we can accomplish," he told the CRA board.

Vierra admitted that while he has been one of the harshest critics of the Chamber, he now senses the Chamber has made improvements since Love took the helm.

Kilger said he feels it's very important for Ceres to have a Chamber for economic development purposes. He mentioned, too, the importance of the Chamber in hosting community functions, such as the Ceres Street Faire.

The city believes the Chamber needs to expand its membership base to become financially solvent. Of the 2,000 businesses licensed in Ceres, the Chamber figures a market penetration at just 14 percent but anticipates increasing it to 30 to 40 percent. That goal "seems appropriate and relatively feasible," according to Tim Ogden, the city's Economic Development Manager.

Causes for the Chamber's falling short of meeting its 2007 goals, he said, included untimely resignations of volunteer leaders, an inadequate business plan, activities that generated little funding and cash flow problems.

The CRA's funding of the Chamber in 2007 did not solve the Chamber's problems, according to one analysis. The city provided the assistance in arrears on a month-by-month basis, which resulted in cash flow problems that did not allow it to initiate planned programs early in the year. Some of the money was used on its intended purposes - such as upgrading the Chamber website and upgrade office equipment - but it did little to generate new sources of income.

Councilman Guillermo Ochoa stated his preference to leave the existing Chamber assistance agreement in place and providing monthly payments totaling $20,000 a year for the new year. That preference was against city staff's liking. He later went along with the rest of the council.