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EDC, chamber seek one voice

The area’s two largest economic development groups are discussing a possible merger, officials from the two agencies said Tuesday.

The Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Spokane Area Economic Development Council (EDC) have a joint board meeting on Aug. 24 to examine the possible consolidation.

Several options exist, ranging from full merger to other variations, said Rich Hadley, president and CEO of the Spokane Regional Chamber. Options include forming a single oversight board with two separate budgets, or allowing one group to become an affiliate of the other.

Hadley and Betsy Cowles, a member of the chamber’s executive committee, briefed Spokane County commissioners Tuesday on the discussions the groups are having and on a recent trip taken by them and six other officials to Lexington, Ky., and Milwaukee, two cities that have undertaken similar mergers. The county is the largest single contributor to the EDC’s budget, while the chamber receives nearly all of its operating budget from its member businesses.

Hadley noted that if a combination occurs, the guiding principle would be to develop a more competitive strategy to enhance the area’s economic assets.

“The goal would not be to cut dues (to members), but to see our investments get more results. We think a different structure could accomplish that,” Hadley said in his presentation to county commissioners.

Hadley said a timeline has not been set, if a merger or closer alliance is approved.

He chose not to use the word “merger,” saying he preferred the term “integration” because it focuses “on the process being followed,” and avoids the implication that parts of the merged groups would be eliminated.

The two organizations do different things. The chamber focuses on work force training and policy advocacy. The EDC — which had been part of the chamber until the 1980s — focuses on company recruitment and job retention. The chamber’s annual budget is $1.6 million; the EDC’s is $1.24 million.

Cowles, who is chairwoman of The Spokesman-Review’s parent company, Cowles Co., told commissioners the recent visits convinced her that Spokane’s economic development efforts need a stronger financial base, along with a better way to provide accountability to groups that back those efforts.

She added that other area development groups have been invited to meet with the chamber and EDC boards on Aug. 24 and throughout the process. Participation by other groups in any new organization would be welcome, but their role and level of commitment is their choice, said Cowles.

Another factor behind the merger talks is board burnout, said Jon Eliassen, president and CEO of the EDC. Eliassen, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, said that both groups often share the same directors. “Our members have said it would be more efficient (by having one group) and would avoid duplicated meetings and duplicated efforts,” he said.

Hadley also told commissioners the opportunity for a happy union is “a perishable moment,” a phrase used by Providence Health Care CEO Skip Davis, who is chairman of the chamber board. Eliassen, who became head of the EDC in 2003, has joked often that he never intended to stay more than three years after retiring from Avista Corp. And Hadley, who’s 59, said, “I’m not at the beginning of my professional career.”