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Chamber Change
Joe Brown looks back - and forward

photoJoe Brown, outgoing Winthrop Chamber of Commerce president, at his Methow Cycle and Sport shop where he shared his reflections on the past year. Photo by Karen West

As his 12-month term as Winthrop Chamber of Commerce president comes to a close, Joe Brown is reflecting on a year of accomplishment. The organization’s red-ink is gone. The chamber is refocused on being useful to its members, he says, and it’s poised to help lead what Brown and others see as the next big challenge: how to keep Winthrop’s “western look and spirit” while allowing change.

Brown, who has lived in the Methow Valley for a decade, is co-owner of Methow Cycle and Sport with his partner, Julie Muyllaert. He was an at-large board member before being elected chamber president last December. Muyllaert was elected chamber treasurer.

“When I was new to the board, I never saw a budget, no plan, no strategy ... I felt like the chamber had become very reactive to the economic climate, town politics and personalities,” Brown said in an interview with Grist.

We needed to “get the books in order,” Brown said of the organization’s priorities. “Julie was amazing at doing that.”

As the group’s leader, Brown said he posed this question: “So you join the chamber. What do you get out of it?” (Membership costs $150 a year; $100 for non-profits.) Winthrop is such a visible tourist destination, he said, yet there “didn’t seem to be a lot of structure and support” to help individual business owners and the general business community succeed. “Could we thoughtfully and intentionally provide our members with content?”

Brown said meetings were changed to include monthly speakers on a variety of topics so that “anybody who walked in the Barn doors was going to take away something they shared with someone else or could integrate into their own business.”

He cited as examples workshops on social media, top things to share with visitors, the economic benefits of trails -- whether for horses, bikes or hiking -- and a session on marketing skills.

He also said the marketing committee is more strategic now and open to everyone’s ideas. “We made the tear-off [tourist] maps free to chamber members,” he added. Now, if someone calls and says they need more maps, “Boom. They’re there.”

Other marketing dollars were put to work by creating a series of five glossy cards that also are free to chamber members and distributed free to tourists. The cards list places for sightseeing with the whole family, winter recreation choices, and places to hike and bike. Brown called them “glossy, quick takes that visitors can have in their cars.”

The chamber’s blog is another new feature, which Brown called “a simple tool for sharing information that any chamber member would need to know.” A goal for 2013 is to redesign the Winthrop web site to include useful information.

Community Events

As part of refocusing, the chamber board decided to sponsor a select group of community events “that are part of the town and what we’re about” with the understanding that the organization can’t be responsible for them because “we don’t have the money to pay for them,” Brown explained. However, the chamber continues to partner with other organizations and individuals.

Among the events with ongoing chamber sponsorship are: Christmas at the End of the Road, the Winthrop Balloon Roundup, '49er Days, the Auto Rallye and the annual Winthrop Chamber of Commerce Golf Tournament.

image of rack cards advertising winthropSome of the marketing materials produced recently by the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce.


“I think Westernization is hugely important for Winthrop and the Methow, generally,” Brown said. “It is and has been successful and for us to let that go away would be a mistake.” But the question he poses is: “How do we maintain Westernization and continue to grow and evolve to [expand] the experiences our visitors have?”

Westernization can’t be so restrictive that is doesn’t allow new and different businesses, Brown said. “I look around at empty businesses and storefronts and it really makes me curious. It brings up a couple of questions for me. Why? How connected is that to Westernization – if at all?”

Brown, whose shop is located across from the baseball field at the entrance to town, used his own business as an example of what Westernization means to a small business owner. “I can’t advertise like I’d like to, or be as visible as I would like to be,” he said. For example, the rules don’t allow him to advertise a clearance sale in a visible way on the exterior of his shop. And he can’t put up a tent outside for a special weekend event.

“We have all benefitted from Winthrop’s westernization,” he is quick to add. “But we can’t all rest on our laurels ... I don’t want businesses to come for two years and then go away. I’d like to see young people come here [start a business and make it].”

Brown, an avid bicyclist and bike racer, brought some big-picture thinking skills to his post as chamber president. He has a bachelor’s degree in Urban Design and Planning and a master’s degree in Higher Education Leadership and Policy, both from the University of Washington.

Before moving to the Methow Valley, he worked at the University of Washington as assistant director for community-based learning. In that role he worked with university professors and non-profit organizations to create service-learning components for about 100 classes each quarter. Asked to give a specific example, Brown said, suppose you are enrolled in a class studying the geography of food distribution. How can you understand that subject if your only experience is driving somewhere to buy food at the grocery store but you’ve never visited a shelter or soup kitchen? Brown’s job was to connect students with such real-world experiences.

Muyllaert also has a background in the service-learning field. She was working at Western Washington University in Bellingham when the couple started dating. “We’ve been engaged for seven years,” Brown added. “Both of us are very civic minded. Both of us have been on non-profit boards and multiple boards for most of our working lives.” They own a house here as well as the cycle and sport shop they started in the summer of 2006.

Strange Rumors

Brown also talked about what he called “strange rumors going around town” that he and others want to change Winthrop from a western town to a bicycle town. It’s hardly a secret that the Methow Valley is gaining traction as a tourist destination for road and mountain bikers. And the chamber did sponsor a meeting at which there was a presentation on the benefits of having a mountain bike trail system. But Brown is not advocating anyone should do away with the western in Winthrop.

Brown said he thinks the rumors have been fueled partly by the fact that Winthrop Mayor Dave Acheson is an employee at his cycle shop. Brown said to have two chamber officers and a mayor working under one roof “whether actual or perceived [to be] that’s probably a little too much of a concentration of power.” But that’s about to change.

Acheson is adamant that he will not run for re-election when his second term expires at the end of 2013.

And Brown said he will not run for re-election to a chamber office when his term expires next month. Instead, he plans to put more energy into the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and its new Methow Valley chapter. He is a member of the statewide alliance board and the local chapter liason. “I’ll always continue to be involved in the community in some way,” he added.

Looking Ahead

But to help all local businesses thrive and to keep visitors willing to spend money coming back for multiple visits, Brown said, “We have to be smart and strategic and willing to talk about what that means ... [The chamber] is working on all of our behalf collectively so Winthrop can be even more vibrant 40 years from now.”

Brown said of that strategic thinking: “I think it takes courage and energy and all the right stakeholders to be thoughtful enough and courageous enough for us to move forward in the next decade and beyond.” There has to be discussion of Westernization, of the kinds of services we want, and an exploration of how to attract new and diverse businesses, he added. “If we run away from the hard discussions at hand, we’ll be confronting this again in the near future.”


Have a comment? >>

There have been many successful businesses over the years, some of them still here and thriving. I don't believe the Westernization has anything to do with businesses not being successful.. Many have come here and left after a winter or two, not being able to survive the winter, usually due to a lack of planning ahead. And business owners know in advance this is a town with a theme. They know what they are getting it to up front. If they don't like the "western" them, there are plenty of other places to start up a business. I really don't see what the "westernization" has to do with the skiing, biking, etc. All those events and sports can thrive and function regardless of the theme. The theme is what enables most businesses to survive. A savvy business owner will recognize this fact and support it. I have been in business in other communities, and the only reason I chose to open up a store here is because of the westernization theme, knowing that it would have a much better guarentee of providing support, than most towns that are having difficulty in these economic times. I think all things mentioned in the above article can work together, it just won't benefit anyone to do away with either.

Lauri Martin