Condon Chamber looks to future beyond its city limits

The Chamber has started meetings to rebrand into a tri-county resource hub and is recognized by Main Street America and Business Oregon for its innovation in supporting rural businesses

It's been a big year for the Condon Chamber of Commerce.

Not only did the Condon Chamber move to the historic Dunn Brothers Building and help to distribute COVID relief funds to businesses in Gilliam County, it has also worked to expand its territory and services.

This past year, Executive Director K'Lynn Lane has crisscrossed the territory – addressing city councils in every town in Gilliam, Wheeler and Sherman County. She has also supported artisan and farmer's markets in all three counties and helped to organize and promote special events. She even worked to save the Wasco Memorial Day Parade, which was on the verge of cancelling for the second consecutive year.

In essence, Lane is on a mission to do more for businesses and communities in the territory and is working to reimagine what the Chamber can become.

Huddled with a group of people from Wheeler, Sherman, and Gilliam County last week – Lane organized the first meeting with the team from Relativity, a Bend based company that specializes in branding support services.

The vision that Lane and her board at the Condon Chamber has laid out is ambitious: to forge a regional entity that will support entrepreneurs and small business growth in the wider John Day River Territory counties of Gilliam, Wheeler and Sherman.

Originally coined 15 years ago by Kara Wilson Anglin and her mother, the late Nancy Stirewalt Wilson to spur tourism in the region – the term "John Day River Territory" has been adopted by Business Oregon and appears on tourism and economic development maps of the state.

Kara Wilson Anglin, who runs Wilson Ranches Retreat with her family, was at the table with K'Lynn Lane and five others as the team from Relativity began to explore rebranding the Condon Chamber to better reflect its tri-county ambitions.

The opportunities and timing are right. The Condon Chamber has outgrown its boundaries and has become a dependable resource for businesses and communities in the wider region.

K'Lynn Lane, who will celebrate nine years as Executive Director at the Condon Chamber on November 15th, says that she has been working to become a regional resource hub since the beginning.

"Nine years ago, I realized that a tri-county chamber was the way to go," Lane says. "I immediately saw that this could be a bigger resource for businesses in the John Day River Territory."

Main Street America and Business Oregon agree.

Late last month, the Chamber was awarded a $60,000 grant from Business Oregon's Rural Opportunity Initiative (ROI), which supports rural entrepreneurs and helps to strengthen and consolidate entrepreneurial ecosystems across Oregon's rural communities.

Lane says that the grant will be used to hire two staff members, who will provide additional support and technical assistance to businesses and communities in Sherman and Wheeler County.

Soon after, Main Street America announced that it was recognizing the Condon Chamber as a trailblazer in its efforts of becoming a tri-county resource hub. Main Street America is a program of The National Main Street Center, an organization that works to strengthen communities through preservation-based economic development. The non-profit has helped hundreds of communities with older and historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts.

Main Street America says that they are hoping to use the Chamber's expansion as a pilot program and believes that helping small communities to band together will produce better results for business owners and wider economic growth.

In a year of significant loss for many businesses around the world, the Chamber has grown its membership, with 136 new businesses in Gilliam, Wheeler and Sherman County signing on. "Our members see the value," Lane says. The Chamber has provided educational workshops and has plugged businesses into resources who can provide advanced assistance, like the Small Business Development Center at Columbia Gorge Community College. There have also been classes for business owners to promote themselves online – such as the "Google My Business" workshop.

The Chamber is also engaged in work that most chambers would consider unconventional and wouldn't touch. For example, the Chamber is working on agri-business programs to promote small businesses that produce food products. It is also working with Eastern Oregon Visitors Association and 5 other communities creating agritourism opportunities for visitors and locals. 

The Chamber has also played a significant role in helping businesses in Gilliam County to get much needed COVID relief aid. The Gilliam County Court allocated COVID funds to the Chamber in 2020 and again in 2021 to distribute to businesses that were reeling from lost revenue.

In all, the Chamber helped to distribute an incredible $660,000 in COVID relief grants to businesses in Gilliam County.

In October, the Court agreed to fund a grant program to incentivize new businesses and help existing businesses in Gilliam County – also to be overseen by the Chamber. The details of the program are still being hashed out but the county's trust in the Chamber is evident. By passing funds through the Chamber, the Gilliam County Court doesn't need financial records of businesses and therefore doesn't need to make company financials part of the public record.

Lane says that a variety of grant programs are coming in January of 2022 for businesses in Gilliam, Wheeler and Sherman County and sees a year of significant growth and opportunity ahead.

"There are 51 business owners in Sherman County," Lane says. "Every business can be touched in some way to make a difference for them."

Lane is currently working on a grant from Business Oregon and hopes to offer lawyers, photographers, and web designers to area businesses.  Lane believes that this direct assistance will make a real difference and get measurable results for businesses in the area. "We're just getting started," Lane says.


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