By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes

The big box question has the Keizer Chamber of Commerce board walking a fine line.

For some members, the equation is very simple: To them, restricting big-box retail to a small portion of the city is cumbersome and sends an anti-business message.

Others, particularly those who own River Road businesses, fear a large discount grocer like Walmart will hurt their own store. Some other River Road business owners are afraid the city’s main corridor will suffer as development continues to shift toward the freeway.

The conflict raises anew longstanding questions within the chamber: Is its mission simply to promote Keizer business? Or to support and oppose political issues with an eye toward free enterprise, with the theory that a rising tide lifts all boats?

The group’s Economic and Governmental Affairs (EDGA) Committee voted to oppose the measure, and to gathering feedback from members and hosting a public forum on the measure, which will be on a special election ballot in March. The forum is set for 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 18. The full board initially chose to adopt EDGA’s recommendation, but the decision was walked back a bit at a November board meeting.

“(The board) asked the EDGA committee to go out and hear from the voice of the business community and the voice of the general public, and try to get a voice on the other side so we’re getting both sides,” said Rich Duncan, the current board president. “… We’re going to have tremendous backlash on the chamber if we act too quickly and make statements about what we support or don’t support.”

The walk-back came after Michael Roth, president of Roth’s Fresh Markets, and Greg Frank – owner of Keizer True Value Hardware – urged the board “not to take a stand, pro or con,” as Frank later characterized his pitch.

“Just to be neutral, and provide information so individuals can make their own decisions,” Frank added. Roth’s Fresh Markets has donated money to Keep Keizer Livable, the group putting the measure on the ballot in March. It would restrict retail buildings larger than 65,000 square feet to the currently-developed portion of Keizer Station.

Suffice to say Duncan thinks the measure is bad news for Keizer’s business community.

“I think it’s misleading and poorly written,” Duncan said. “That’s probably the two key elements that I see. I believe in the growth of business in Keizer, and I don’t believe in added limitations to growth. … But I don’t believe we would financially play a role in the measure.”

Joe Egli, the most recent chamber president and now a city councilor, likewise has misgivings about the ballot measure.

The chamber sent out an online survey designed to gauge awareness of what the ballot measure could mean for Keizer and get an idea of how members felt about it.

Results stated 61 percent of respondents believe the measure would hinder employment opportunities in Keizer. About 58 percent felt it would send a message Keizer is “not open for business,” with 42 percent disagreeing.

The survey asked whether the taker knew businesses ranging from furniture stores, grocery, bowling lanes and movie theaters “would be covered and potentially limited” by the measure, and also asked whether passing the measure sends a message that “Keizer is not open for business.”

The wording drew criticism from some corners, including Dennis Koho, a former mayor and chamber president. He currently sits on the chamber’s board of directors.

“I did not appreciate the survey,” Koho said. “I thought it was more of a campaign piece than truly looking for information.”

He said some questions were “true and sincere efforts at gaining some input” but questioned the survey’s value.

“It’s kind of hard to have a neutral survey once you’ve tipped your cards one way or the other,” Koho said.

Nate Brown, the city’s community development director, said it’s difficult to know what types of businesses would be prohibited outside of Keizer Station’s Area A – and, thus, assess the validity of the survey’s claims.

“For example we define ‘retail trade’ in the development code, but we do not define ’retail buildings,’” Brown said via e-mail. “Retail buildings would relate to the retail cap limitations in Keizer Station in what way?  What mix of uses would trigger the cap?”

It’s this uncertainty, as Egli put it, that makes him apprehensive about it.

“They’re going to have unintended consequences,” Egli said. “… I know they’re well-intended. But I’m part of the Chamber and I have to represent our businesses. … We need people to come in and shop at our stores, buy our gas, eat our food and play in our parks.”

A history of neutrality…

sort of

While the EDGA committee was designed to make recommendations on issues, typically the full board of directors has hesitated to take a formal position.

The EDGA committee has taken positions on a number of issues – including last year’s Measures 66 and 67, and the Marion County home rule charter – but Keizer’s chamber historically hasn’t financially supported or opposed a cause as the Salem Chamber of Commerce has done in the past. In the case of Measures 66 and 67 the board opted not to take a position, instead “taking a role as far as being a conduit for communication,” said Christine Dieker, the chamber’s executive director.

“We’re non-partisan; we do not support candidates,” Dieker said. “There will be times … where we’ll take positions on issues.”

But times change, and so does the membership. Koho acknowledged as much.

“Our membership used to largely be Keizer-based businesses owned by our members,” Koho said. “and that’s not the case anymore. … They’re going to look at something differently than Greg Frank or I, who have storefronts on River Road. That changes the face of the chamber.”

The timing of the chamber’s “Open for Business” campaign – which was planned concurrently with the measure hitting the ballot box – isn’t a coincidence, Dieker said in an email.

But Egli doesn’t expect the chamber to actively campaign against it, or financially back any opposition group that crops up.

“We’re not going to campaign,” Egli said. “We will have a forum like we did for the Marion County Home Rule (charter) where we ask both sides to come speak, and let members decide individually what they feel is best.”