Steve Stevens, 53, arrived at Greater Spokane Incorporated as president and CEO on July 1. He takes the helm at GSI, the region’s joint chamber of commerce and economic development council, after holding the executive role at the 1,800-member Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
Linda Elkin, incoming GSI chair, said Stevens stood out quickly with a strong background in public policy.
“He also has small-business experience, and some innovative ideas for supporting businesses,” Elkin said. “He develops relationships and rapport quickly. Finally, he puts a high priority on family, and that fits in nicely with our values here in Spokane.”
Prior to GSI’s annual meeting Wednesday, he talked about experiences and goals.
Q. Can you describe your small-business background?
A. I was interviewing to work with larger corporations when my father called and said, “Your mother and I would like you to come work for us in the family business.” They had a mechanical contracting business. I worked as a project manager and estimator. I learned a lot of technical training and was part of that day-to-day operation of a business. There were difficulties and challenges. We had to make payroll.
Q. After 20 years at Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, what is similar or different here?
A. Northern Kentucky is like Spokane in that Seattle is the 800-pound gorilla in Olympia. There, Louisville is the 800-pound gorilla. We were the second-largest metropolitan area in Kentucky and they were the largest. What we found is instead of trying to beat them, we joined them, and over time we agreed to help each other. You figure out how to help them get what they want so you can also get what you want.
Q. You’re only the fifth executive in GSI’s over 120-year history; what drew you to Spokane?
A. I had a choice to make when I was approaching my 20th (work) anniversary. You’re at that part of life when you say, if you’re going to make a change, this is the time. I’d already begun a process for a job to run the state chamber in Maryland. After I went to the interview in Maryland, they also offered me the job. Everyone was great, but there, it was different. There was no outreach like in Spokane, the warmth and the extension with people saying, “We really want you.”
This organization, for not hiring many executives in its history, really knew what they were doing. I had just finished the interview in Maryland. My phone rang. I heard, “Hello Steve, this is Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers. I understand you’re GSI’s top candidate. I just want you to know what a wonderful community this is.” That’s pretty strong. Another series of things came like that.
Q. What is your primary focus in these first weeks on the job?
A. Really getting out into this community; getting to know what makes it tick. You have to know what you have before you can sell the region.
I’m visiting with partner organizations to see how we can work together. I’m looking for ways for this community to feel bigger. We’re now in the top 100 MSAs. The closer we can get to the top 50, the more we can get on people’s radar screens.
Q. What are some challenges you’re hearing from Spokane’s businesses?
A. A consistent challenge of workforce; businesses can’t find the skilled, qualified workers they need. That really exists in almost every community.
Q. What about Spokane’s advantages you’re learning about?
A. That people who want a certain lifestyle because they love nature and community, they can have it here. This speaks now more to the millennium generation. They’re the ones who will occupy these new startups and business positions. If they don’t want to live here, they won’t. That’s their value set, living comes before working. The more we can enhance and promote living here, the more people we can attract. Also having no state income tax here, that’s a big deal, and our education system is very good.
Q. There’s much debate about the STA Plaza, what would be a way forward?
A. It may be more prudent to step back a little and ask, are we applying this money in the best way possible? I don’t have answers for the solution yet. Our chair of the board has stated he has concerns due to an experience with a customer who will have about two dozen people here for two weeks to test equipment his company has manufactured and does not want to stay downtown due to what they have seen around there. They will be staying outside of the core. Their concern is illegal activity by people who stay around the transit center who aren’t using the transit system.
Q. Beyond speeches and meetings, are you using other communications?
A. You can find a lot of Tweets from me. I use my Facebook, a newsletter called “Prez Point of View,” “Prez on the Road” videos, so I’m trying to do social media and electronic communications.
Q. What about family and hobbies; you’re in a rock band?
A. I’m a drummer, and my wife Marilyn and I are in a band, Suits That Rock. We had (benefit) concerts twice a summer for the past six years, raised between $400,000 and $500,000 for youth arts education programs. My wife is a trumpet player. We had a horn section; we played songs from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s. My son Stewart is a percussion studies major. He’s a grad student getting an MBA. My son Logan, a junior, is a Division I diver for Virginia Tech. My wife is an independent health and wellness consultant. Now, we’re looking for a house.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.