Master of promotion

SUNDAY, AUG. 9, 2009

Jonathan Coe leaves behind a strong legacy of growth as leader of Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene chambers of commerce

When Jonathan Coe and his wife, Pat, moved from Spokane to North Idaho in 1984 for his job as director of the Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce, they joked that theirs was the only car headed north.

Unemployment in Bonner County hovered near 12 percent, the recession had cut into the county’s natural resource-based economy, tourism was down and light manufacturing was only just getting started, Coe said. Within the first two weeks, he realized the chamber only had enough money to pay him for six months. When he asked the chairman of the board where his salary would come from, Coe said the response was: “We figured if we hired the right guy, he’d figure something out.”

Coe did figure something out, and his 14-year tenure with the Sandpoint chamber and subsequent 10-year stint as president of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce marked a time when both cities emerged as tourist destinations that have attracted national attention from Time and Sunset magazines, as well as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and “Good Morning America.”

Now, on the eve of Coe’s 25th anniversary in the chamber business, he and Pat are bidding farewell to North Idaho and moving to Santa Rosa, Calif., where he will become CEO of the chamber in the Sonoma County seat, heart of the wine country. He starts Sept. 14.

He leaves behind a legacy, say friends and business associates, of leadership, inclusiveness and skill at bringing together divergent interests to work toward common goals. A model developed during his first years in Sandpoint of the chamber promoting any industry that wanted help, provided it shared the cost, has served him well for more than two decades and seems a key factor in his selection for his new job.

“We’re incredibly impressed with what he’s done in Coeur d’Alene,” said Mari Featherstone, chairwoman of the board of directors at the Santa Rosa chamber. “It seems as if he has come up with some very collaborative and unique ways to help your community grow and to help different parts of your community work together toward a positive goal. We’re at a point where creative solutions will make a huge difference for all of our economies.”

In Sandpoint, Coe’s strategy evolved following a visit to the state by former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, who helped his state emerge from a recession by promoting tourism. That convinced Coe that Sandpoint should follow suit, especially with a ski resort and “gorgeous lake” already in place as assets.

A three-pronged strategy emerged: put on as many events as possible to show the value of tourism, create a cooperative marketing program with the tourism industry, and encourage private investment in non-event-dependent tourism, such as cruise boats, golf courses and other activities.

Coe and his staff of two, along with a host of volunteers, began to put on numerous events — Winter Carnival, Mardi Gras, Waterfest, bike racing, triathlons, a blues festival and Octoberfest.

“Most of the events still going on in Sandpoint today were generated back when he was there,” said Jeff Bond, a Sandpoint Realtor who then was chairman of the chamber’s Tourism Promotion Committee. Tourism became a mechanism for economic development, Coe said, because it brought people to town for vacation and lured some visitors to move to the area and start businesses.

Timber industry representatives soon asked Coe if he could do the same thing for them. Two weeks later, he had $25,000 on his desk to promote the timber industry. The chamber’s Timber Information Program was born, along with Timberfest, a daylong community celebration of logging with competitions and activities that ran about 15 years. In 1988, Coe hired a young woman named Shawn Keough to run the timber program. She became a state senator in 1996.

When Coe ran the chamber, Keough said, the business community, economic development organizations and chamber all worked under one umbrella. When he left, the organizations split into separate groups, she said. Though people might disagree about the best approach, Keough said, “There is value in pulling together with one organization. Your resources are weightier and more focused.”

Coe’s early years in Sandpoint coincided with the start of the Idaho Travel Council’s grant program. Tourism promotion organizations statewide compete for a pool of money generated by a 2 percent tax on hotels, motels and private campgrounds. Last week, the Coeur d’Alene chamber learned it had been awarded $385,500 for this year.

“He is extremely talented in putting forth well-thought-out plans and highly leveraged plans,” said Karen Ballard, administrator for the state’s Division of Tourism. “They have figured out how to make that money spread as far as they can. He does his homework and he delivers.”

When Coe took over as Coeur d’Alene chamber president in 1999, he found a much more established organization and more diversified economy. The chamber had solid membership and a good budget. Coe had been brought in to promote tourism and take the chamber “to the next level,” though no one was sure what that was, he said.

But instead of promoting Coeur d’Alene, what Coe called “clouds” hanging over the city forced him to spend his first few years defending it against a reputation as a haven for racists, due to the nearby presence of the Aryan Nations.

The second public relations challenge, he said, came from a federal Environmental Protection Agency proposal to dredge the lake, due to a century of mining pollution flowing down from the Silver Valley. In 2002, the EPA deferred cleanup plans for the lake to the recently instituted Lake Management Plan.

Regarding the Aryan Nations, a four-part strategy evolved that included ensuring civic leaders had an immediate, unified response to anything leader Richard Butler said publicly, and backing the message with actions, such as teaching tolerance in schools and supporting the annual human rights banquet. The city also found ways to “be intolerant toward intolerance,” Coe said, including pulling an event permit for every Saturday in the summer to prevent an Aryan parade. Only one event could be held per day.

The last part was to create a different image for Coeur d’Alene. An opportunity arose following the city’s landing of the USA Triathlon in 2001-2002. That opened the door to Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene, which just celebrated its seventh year in the Lake City.

Coe hopes the new reputation that will resonate is as a place that brings in 2,500 athletes every summer from almost every state and 20 countries.

While the stain of the Aryan Nations hasn’t been totally erased, Ironman “has given us a major brand … to hang your hat on,” said Coe, sporting a blue Ironman polo shirt. “It’s sending a different message.”

Longtime human rights activist Tony Stewart called Coe “a healing person for our community” who was tremendously supportive of human rights. “Oftentimes, we wonder why key individuals come to a place at the time they do,” Stewart said. “They seem to be here for us at a time they’re needed so badly.”

Coe said that after the $6.3 million verdict that bankrupted the Aryans in 2000, the city was able to “turn the corner.” So much energy had been spent defending the city, he said, that finally the chamber was able to focus on promotion.

The tried and true model went back into place. Around 2002, when the arts community asked the chamber for more promotion of the arts, an arts and culture committee was formed, arts businesses contributed money, and events such as the Second Friday Artwalk emerged. That committee eventually became a separate nonprofit, with its manager a staff member of the chamber. Also housed at the chamber are representatives of organizations ranging from the Downtown Association to the North Idaho Trail Foundation.

Coe said he’s proud of this city, which brought in the prized Salvation Army Kroc Center; which turned over its old library to a nonprofit for use to help low-income people; which within three days celebrated grand openings downtown of a new public library and a new visitor center and chamber building.

What he will miss most, he said, are the people.

Then he glances out his tall glass windows at sunshine glinting off the blue waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene. “I can feel good about leaving and know someone else will come in with better ideas and a new take,” he said.

But, he said, “The view is not going to be the same.”

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