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Washington Voices

Changing Chamber During 75 Years Of Life, The Valley Chamber Has Promoted Not Only Business, But Also A Sense Of Community

Thu., July 25, 1996

In 1921, most Valley roads had no signs.

Residents didn’t think of themselves as parts of one big Valley. They belonged to townships like Dishman, Opportunity, Veradale, Otis Orchards. And they competed against one another, from baseball to growth to who could throw the biggest, best bash.

Then came Apple Blossom Day in Otis Orchards. The first all-Valley event ever, thousands endured the bumpy ride through the area’s undeveloped roads.

As folks wolfed down 1,000 apple pies, leaders of the Valley’s nine commercial clubs decided this cooperation stuff was all right. And maybe, they thought, we should schedule community festivals so they don’t compete with one another.

Someone, though, would have to organize all this. On July 26, 1921, representatives of the clubs met at the Fruit Growers State Bank in Greenacres and organized the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The Valley chamber turns 75 Friday. And though it’s gone from naming dirt roads to promoting the electronic superhighway, some things remain unchanged:

When Valleyites have a beef, they go to the chamber. Though it’s not a governmental body, it often acts like one. And even if problems don’t get solved, issues are aired nonetheless.

“There’s been a number of organizations that have come and gone, but they haven’t lasted,” says Ray Murphy, the chamber executive director. “And as long as there’s no formal governmental structure that specifically represents the Valley, I think we’ll continue to be the quasi-governmental forum for people to cuss and discuss issues.”

When it started, the chamber met in the old Opportunity State Bank building at Sprague and Pines, which now houses the Army Surplus store now.

In 1923, the all-Valley picnics started. The chamber also organized community club dinners; a different township would sponsor one monthly. In 1930, the chamber appointed a committee to name and number Valley streets.

But after World War II, the biggest challenge the Valley faced was a loss in manufacturing jobs, says Jack Morrison, a two-time chamber president. He was just 26 during his first term in 1953.

Trucks made it easy to ship apples to Portland or Seattle; they were packaged there and distributed.

Valley apple box manufacturers closed. So did some fruit packers and slaughterhouses.

Times changed and so did the issues important to the Valley. Land use became the new hot button.

“You just couldn’t have pig farms next to the hairdresser,” says Morrison, now 70. Folks didn’t like being told what to do on their own land.

The courthouse, though, was far away. “(The chamber) gave you a neutral place to fight it out,” Morrison says. During the 1950s, the chamber would go before the county commission monthly to brief it on Valley needs.

While all this was going on, the Valley identity was solidifying. “We weren’t Spokane, we weren’t Post Falls, we were Spokane Valley,” Morrison says.

The chamber began sponsoring the Miss Spokane Valley contest. An annual float made rounds all over the Inland Empire, as well as appearing at the Valley parade. Dishman Days, Opportunity Days and everything else became one event - Valley Days.

In 1955, the emerging solidarity gave Bob Swartz and Art MacKelvie the idea of starting a Valley-targeted radio station, KZUN. “Anything the chamber had to report or take a stand on, we gave it full coverage,” remembers Dick Wright, who was the station’s newscaster.

And every extension of Interstate 90 or new business meant chamber-sponsored hoopla.

“When a hamburger stand opened up we’d get the high school band, Miss Spokane Valley and have a ribbon-cutting,” says Joe Custer, 74, a two-time chamber president. “Every three new jobs were a big deal.”

In 1956, the chamber bought its first real home, a house at 10303 E. Sprague. “We used the kitchen cabinets for filing cabinets,” Morrison remembers.

Two years later, the Valley learned the Naval Supply Depot, built during World War II, was shutting down. “It looked like it would be junked,” Custer says.

The chamber decided to save it. It asked Washington’s U.S. senators to keep the depot from being scrapped. After two years, some investors finally bought the place, turning it into an industrial park.

Six months later, Washington Water Power bought it; in 1962 it became operational.

The Spokane Industrial Park was born.

“That was really a turning point for the Valley chamber. It became a strong business-development entity,” Custer says. “It was really the tenacity of the Valley chamber that saved that facility.”

During May 1969, the chamber opened a brand-new building on its land on Sprague. The program for the May 3 dedication picnic featured the motto, “One Valley, One Chamber.”

Five years later, chamber president Cecil Cleveland sat next to Richard Nixon at the opening ceremonies of Expo ‘74. The chamber saw its first woman president, Norma Ventris, in 1980.

These days, the chamber still has its hands full.

Incorporation efforts keep popping up. The chamber has its own World Wide Web page. The Valley is a growth hotbed. Once in a while, some talk of merging the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce and the Valley chamber. Fur flies. The Spokane Valley Mall, a project heavily courted by the chamber, is scheduled to open in August.

It’s a long way from Apple Blossom Day.

“(Chambers) are evolving from organizations that promote their areas through parades, picnics and community events into strong advocates for business,” Ray Murphy says. Today’s chamber has muscle, and Murphy says it’s learning to flex.

Change is scary, he says. But worth it.

“To me, that’s what makes chambers fun and exciting.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (1 Color)

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