Younger newcomers showing up in Ashland inspire rebrand for Travel Ashland, Chamber
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
In late Spring 2020, when much of the city of Ashland’s businesses, including Oregon Shakespeare Festival, were shuttered due to COVID-19 regulations, Sandra Slattery had some ideas.
Slattery, executive director of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce since 1985, reached out to city leaders in Ashland urging them to support her in writing two Business Oregon grants: One, for funds that would help the chamber study the impact of COVID-19 on the local economy; and two, for a grant to create an online portal for business owners to offer their wares online at shopashlandoregon.com. The chamber was awarded grants totaling $104,000, and created how-to videos on how to navigate the world of business finance. The chamber was also awarded smaller regional grants in 2020.
“We were the only chamber in all of Oregon to receive any of these grants or provide this kind of technical assistance,” Slattery said. “It just evolved out of saying, ‘How can we continue our mission and where can we get support?”
Leading up to the grant awards, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Slattery and chamber staff worked with more than 250 business owners, whether helping them to procure grants, or navigate how to best serve their customers during the unprecedented time. Slattery found that many business owners were facing the most challenges when it came to applying for and obtaining stimulus money because they didn’t have their financial documents in order.
“We designed the series to address both needs, and we felt it would also serve people looking to start new businesses,” Slattery said in an email.
The chamber already had experience holding how-to workshops for business owners on numerous topics, such as how to create websites or social media pages, but this time, the help needed to be more specific. Slattery decided to up the ante.
To increase their outreach and better serve business owners at a time when the playbook for operating a successful business wasn’t always clear, they worked with experts in finance and banking, aiming to create short videos that offered even more value to business owners when it came to applying for grants and having the necessary financial statements in order to do so.
The chamber tapped videographer Nick Alexander of Klamath Falls to create a financial literacy video series, called “The Language of Business.”
Each of the short, five to six-minute episodes are geared toward different areas of business, but with a target audience of those who may have started a business without the necessary business acumen.
Chamber staff interviewed field experts in finance and accounting and then interviewed business owners.
“We wanted to dispel the intimidation so people would not feel bad about not understanding something,” she said, “and that they could watch this video and understand from both the professional and the business owner why it was important, why that business owner needed it and why they developed it.”
The series helps business owners — both budding and veteran entrepreneurs alike — understand the nuances of navigating business terminology, how to handle finances, and how to protect assets. The video episodes also showcase the individual stories of local business owners that make Ashland unique, such as The Crown Jewel, co-owned by Anne Robison.
The video series started turning heads, and not just those in southern Oregon.
“People were sharing it, even into Portland. It had this incredible reach,” Slattery said.
Ashland Chamber staff served formal technical advisors for a variety of state grants and aided business owners who needed advice in the application process to apply for programs such as commercial rent relief.
“It’s just because we were providing a service to small business and it was needed,” she said.
“and more people saw that and said, ‘Wow, this is really great — would you help?’
“So we started helping businesses, anybody who asked for help.”
Simultaneously with creating the video series, Ashland Chamber worked with Travel Ashland to launch a major analysis of who was coming to Ashland while businesses were largely closed to in-person shopping or limited in their capacity.
What they found was that a younger, more active individual was coming to Ashland, many times with a young family, to explore the outdoors and the culinary scene when, for years, the clientele was from an older demographic, according to Slattery.
This reinforced what Slattery and others at the chamber and Travel Ashland already knew — that they needed to emphasize even the culinary and outdoor scene as part of the Ashland experience.
“We’ve got some amazing landscape for people to engage with,” Slattery said. “It absolutely rivals Lake Tahoe and a lot of other areas that are kind of overrun now.
“In December, we launched the whole rebrand through Travel Ashland and the chamber, and that will just keep rolling out in different ways over the next few months,” she added.
Currently, the chamber has hired ECONorthwest to do an economic diversification study to analyze Ashland’s economy. The study is being conducted thanks to a $150,000 grant from SOREDI (Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development, Inc.).
The chamber has conducted business retention and expansion surveys for decades, Slattery said, where business owners are surveyed to look at their industry strengths and challenges.
“They’ll be doing stakeholder interviews with businesses throughout Ashland in different sectors, and a deep survey, focus groups, a big outlook to say, ‘OK, what is working, what isn’t, where are the challenges, where are the opportunities, and how do we also look at the fact that we are known as the tourism destination and higher education with SOU, where can we leverage that, grow that, how can we diversify the economy?” Slattery said.
The study will also look at the challenges and opportunities for performing arts in the region.
“We’ve been in the discovery phase for the last month, where we’ve been getting every report on the economy we can get our hands on to share with them so they’ll create a baseline,” she said. “And then, right now, we’re finalizing stakeholders — They’re going to be reaching out over the next month and a half to do interviews, and then focus groups, and then the survey.”
“By the time we get to the end of March, we should be pretty close to having a report,” she added.
The chamber and various partners are deciding how to release the findings.
“We want to stimulate private investment for people to say, ‘Wow, that could work in Ashland,” Slattery said.
To learn more about Ashland Chamber of Commerce offerings, go to ashlandchamber.com.