Lively small-town chamber sees big growth

Ask members of the Woodland Chamber of Commerce to tell you about the organization and it might sound like they’re talking about an old neighbor or a good friend.

Woodland Chamber membership has jumped from 50 in 2000 to 285 current members – not bad for a town that’s light on retail and heavy on manufacturing, and has a population of about 5,000 people. And while most chambers meet monthly, the Woodland Chamber holds lunch meetings every Tuesday at the Oak Tree Restaurant, with 50 to 100 people attending each week.

Founded in 1966 and housed in a double-wide visitors’ center and gift shop off of I-5, the chamber has established itself as a fount of community information. And while providing that information, its goal is promoting local businesses.

“This visitors’ center has had 40,000 people a year go through it,” said Chamber Director Sharon Knight. “We’re the first visitors’ center directly off I-5 when you leave Portland.”

Knight has been the director for eight years, and previously was a chamber member with her husband. They owned the Shop N Kart grocery store in Woodland.

New members get hefty welcome baskets with thick stacks of local business cards promoting members. The newsletter sends free business announcements to 400 readers, and Knight said members keep her updated on opportunities for job seekers.

Each meeting includes a “haves and wants” session, when members voice needs they have or resources they can offer.

“If somebody says, ‘I need help,’ somebody else will say, ‘I can help you. Let’s get together’,” Knight said.

And members don’t just come from Woodland. These days, they drive from Vancouver, Longview, Ridgefield, La Center and other surrounding towns.  

Mark Eaton joined the chamber shortly after opening Ridgefield Junction Auto License in February. He visited several chambers and business associations before deciding to make the weekly drive to Woodland.

“Out of all of (the groups), the Woodland Chamber is definitely the most active and responsive to your needs,” Eaton said. “I feel like they really bent over backward to get the word out about us being a new business.”

The chamber helped President Joel Lengyel build his contact base after moving to the area.

“I’ve never been affiliated with a chamber that’s been so active,” said Lengyel, who is manager of Longview-based Cascade Title Co. “I came to Woodland after being in Spokane about 28 years and realized I had lost all my contacts. (The chamber) made the transition easier. It’s brought me business from as far away as Tacoma and Everett.”

Once a week, United States House representatives for District 18 hold a conference call with the Woodland Chamber to get feedback on current legislation. Darlene Johnson heads the chamber’s political committee and said the calls include chamber members as well as civic leaders and citizens.

“Too many people feel like what they do doesn’t matter. It’s just not true,” Johnson said. “If you haven’t got time to be involved in politics, then you haven’t got time to be in business. Who sets our business climate more than politicians?”

Johnson and her husband bought Woodland Truck Line in 1967, and Johnson has been politically active most of that time. She is particularly interested in pro-business politics and keeps the chamber abreast of legislation regarding issues including unemployment, workers compensation, minimum wage and county comprehensive plans.

And when it’s time for local elections, candidates often speak at Woodland Chamber luncheons.

“We try to get both candidates for any office at the same meeting,” Johnson said. “We hold their feet to the fire. … The candidates call us the ‘dream chamber.’ ”

The group’s community involvement is significant enough that retirees join the chamber to stay plugged in, Knight said. Weekly luncheons provide buzz about town, along with after-hours events, an annual awards dinner, a Christmas tree and wreath auction. The events in themselves are typical, but members say what happens at them is unique.

“Having gone to other chamber meetings, I notice it’s more of a relaxed atmosphere,” Eaton said. “You can really have a conversation with anybody.”

Lengyel is drawn to the community’s “old-time spirit,” which he called refreshing. The trick will be combining that spirit with future developments as Woodland grows, he said.

“I see the community wanting to grow, but the city council is conscientious about overburdening the infrastructure,” Lengyel said. “Woodland is growing and a lot of people don’t like that. But you have to grow.”

Benno Dobbe’s Woodland-based business, Holland America Bulb Farm, has been part of that growth. The farm was founded in 1982, and hosts a three-week tulip festival each April, now in its sixth year. Dobbe intentionally named the festival for the town, along with a new tulip species he sells internationally.

“I felt it was a good idea to call it the Woodland Tulip Festival to attract more people to Woodland,” he said. “I would like to see the Vancouver area be more recognized, and Woodland is part of it. I do not mind growth, but it should be reasonable. I do not mind seeing new blood here – improvements can be made because of it.”

Charity Thompson can be reached at cthompson@vbjusa.com.