Laurel Brent-Bumb is in her 20th year as CEO of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, which serves businesses spread over more than 1,800 square miles. The organization also works with several independent chambers within the county. Comstock’s spoke with Brent-Bumb about efforts to make this largely rural region a desirable place to do business.
Tell me about your organization.
We’re at around 650-700 members. Because of our agricultural industries and the fact that most of our businesses are five or fewer employees, we have a lot of small businesses and mom-and-pop and independent cottage industry businesses. (We’re) also responsible for the visitors authority and the film commission. … We have a contract for service with El Dorado County to attract tourism. … Our film commission was started 25 years ago. (The El Dorado Lake Tahoe Film & Media Office) executive director is Kathleen Dodge; she has amazing relationships that enable us to attract many projects — media projects, film projects. She just landed a big picture that is not going to be released until next year, so I can’t tell you what it is. Through our film commission, we generate between $1 million and $7 million a year in economic impact in our community.
Your county includes some big residential communities, two incorporated cities and lots of rural unincorporated areas. How do you meet the diverse needs of your members?
El Dorado County is mostly unincorporated. We have incorporated areas — that’s the city of Placerville and the city of South Lake Tahoe. We have a very strong working relationship with the city of Placerville (and) the city council of South Lake Tahoe. …. We have a Joint Chambers Commission; that is our advocacy arm. We work collaboratively with El Dorado Hills, Shingle Springs and Cameron Park on issues and legislation. We were really fortunate a couple years ago to become one of the founding members of a group called UCAN — that’s United Chamber Advocacy Network. We’re at seven chambers in that organization, and we have a lobbyist at the state level. … We believe that representing our members in advocacy is a critical component of our relevance, but we do have opportunities for education, networking, helping with social media and moving businesses forward. We have a business resource center that’s available — professional business counseling, educational seminars, a lending library — so that’s another piece.
What are the main needs of your members?
I’m a member of a professional organization called Western Association of Chamber Executives, and (its) polling proves that 80 percent of chamber members place advocacy as an extremely important piece. Networking and marketing support is another piece, and when members hit growing pains or challenges, (they know) we’re here to be able to help walk them through that.
Is the lack of rural broadband something that affects your members?
It’s on the top of our radar … and we’re looking at opportunities and alternatives for increasing and improving broadband. If you talk to any Realtor, they will tell you that the lack of high-speed internet has been an issue in the sales of residential and commercial (properties), so it’s a challenge for us. (We’re) looking for opportunities that don’t cost millions and millions of dollars.
What’s the biggest state issue on your radar?
El Dorado County for many years did not have a reputation as being very business-friendly. The current leadership … has changed that, and it’s a new paradigm (and) we are overcoming that negative, not-business-friendly environment. I’m really disappointed to say I don’t feel that way at the state level. … And because of state regulations and imposed costs of living and cost of doing business constantly increasing, it’s very difficult. I think the challenge right now is with the Dynamex (California Supreme Court ruling on independent contractors) issue. I believe it is yet another case of unintended consequences. Many of our members have business models that include the services of independent contractors, as well as many of our members are independent contractors. I understand there may be two sides to this issue, but the “one-size-fits-all” approach to the issue isn’t the answer. A closer look is needed to allow what is a viable alternative to the traditional employer-employee standard.
What’s the biggest federal issue on your radar?
National forests, working to make our forests sustainable. We’ve lost the timber industry in the state of California, and we’re importing over 70 percent of our lumber from Canada and Australia. You can’t walk through our forests because of the overgrowth and the fuels. It’s not a matter of if there’s going to be another catastrophic fire, it’s when. I’m hopeful the extreme environmentalists are understanding that it’s time for a more proactive approach to cleaning up our forests so they’re healthy. The millions and millions of trees that we lost to the bark beetle and the drought, it was because of overgrowth. So at the federal level, that would be the big issue for us.
In 2018, El Dorado County voters approved five ballot measures legalizing the cultivation and sale of commercial cannabis, and those ordinances are being developed. Is the chamber involved in this discussion, and how might cannabis affect your organization?
Yes, the chamber is involved. We have weighed in. The county has been diligent in (its) approach to working with the industry as well as the population in coming to a place that is as comfortable as possible for both the industry and the residents. Everyone knows that cannabis has been grown freely, illegally, here because we have such a rural environment that it lends itself to that kind of illegal activity, unfortunately. I’m hopeful that with the legalization of cannabis that regulation and control will be better, and (cannabis) will be less of a negative impact in our community, but I suppose we’re in a wait-and-see mode right now. I heard on the news the results of the (California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s) expectation of having brought in $200 million by now, and having only brought in $2 million — 1 percent of the expectation.
How has the region’s affordable-housing crisis affected efforts to retain or attract workers and, therefore, businesses in the county?
Affordable housing is important to community, not just business. We have a lot of generational families, pioneer families that have been here for a very long time, … and the young people will go away to school and they can’t come back, and that’s really sad. It is almost exclusively (due to) the cost of housing. The lack of workforce housing is an issue in many communities but seems to be more impactful to El Dorado County. Governments, both local and state, could develop programs to create incentives to make it possible for developers to produce an affordable product.
What do you want readers to know about doing business in El Dorado County?
El Dorado County has it all. We are at a tipping point right now because of the new paradigm and new culture in county government, because of the opportunities in our agriculture industry and our ag-tourism — we now have 71 wineries … with more to come. … We have the educated workforce that lives here and commutes out of El Dorado County. So to be able to come here as a startup or relocating your business to El Dorado County, not only do you have the workforce and the business-friendly environment, but you have the quality of life that is untouchable anywhere else. Our central location, we’re out of the earthquake zone, we’re (close to) Tahoe, we’re two hours from San Francisco, we’re close to an international airport.
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