‘Working on a plan’: Stuart Baker becomes the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce’s new executive director
New Chamber director envisions enhanced role for body
Hit hard by the pandemic, as many organizations and businesses have been, the Nevada Chamber of Commerce welcomed a new executive director last month.
Stuart Baker has been in the role for three weeks. He’s been assessing how best to help chamber members improve business coming on the heels of what has been a challenging year and a half for many commercial enterprises.
Baker takes the position most recently held by Cathy Whittlesey, who had it for 36 years. The position was eliminated in July 2020, drawing backlash from some. Whittlesey called the move “a shock” at the time.
Baker comes to the job from Berkeley, where he served as executive director of the Telegraph Business Improvement District. He also served as Northern California Chapter president of the Association of Commuter Transportation, an advocacy and networking organization promoting the use of commuting alternatives. He’s a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
With a number of challenges facing Nevada City, particularly parking downtown, Baker noted it is a perennial concern because the downtown area is a historic district. Additionally, there are inevitable limitations downtown.
“There’s some longer-term solutions we’ve discussed,” he said. “But a parking lot solution comes after we work out a recovery from COVID-19.”
One of the first things Baker would like to tackle is getting the 16 vacant storefronts downtown occupied with prosperous businesses.
“We’re currently working on a plan for a merchant committee,” he said. “I’d rather the chamber speak as a whole. The first step is involving current merchants and city leaders for creative solutions around this.”
‘BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT MODEL’
Vice Mayor Duane Strawser noted the City Council is looking forward to learning about Baker’s leadership style.
“He’s supportive of moving the chamber away from an events and tourism-based organization,” said Strawser. “He’s promoting the chamber more toward a business development model.”
However, Strawser said he would not be able to entirely abandon the events and tourism aspects of the chamber’s history because it had been very successful. It would be most beneficial if the chamber found a way to implement both models of operation.
Concerning the difficulty of parking downtown, the area was designed for horses and wagons, not cars, Strawser said. Incorporated Nevada City is only 2 square miles and has always struggled with parking.
The council, police and fire departments, as well as the city engineer and planner, have looked for a couple of years on how to maximize parking with two potential options. The first would be a historically compatible parking structure behind the National Hotel on Spring Street. They have plans drawn up, but now they need the funding. City Engineer Bryan McAlister said this structure would accommodate between 170 and 190 parking spaces.
A second parking proposal would be to build an overpass structure spanning the portion of Highway 49 that cuts into the city between Broad Street and the post office. Strawser said they might designate these spaces for merchants and their employees, freeing up the spaces on Broad Street for retail customers.
“At this point we’re more focused on the Spring Street parking because it’s smaller in scope and more convenient for the National Hotel guests,” he said.
One of Baker’s priorities is to provide chamber members support on how to navigate critical issues of many entrepreneurs, such as proper handling of labor law requirements, as well as making sure businesses are in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also intends to focus on being a savvy resource on how to be a better business.
“The chamber also wants to unite the 7 Hills Business District (anchored by SPD Market) across Angkula Bridge, the other side of Deer Creek,” he said. “We want to explore commonalities of running a business.”
Baker expressed some support for the closure of the 200 block of Commercial Street, with some merchants expressing a desire to turn it into a pedestrian mall. However, he pointed out any initiative should be a collaboration of chamber members, city leaders and merchants. He cautioned that while the closure of Commercial Street is a positive, concerns remain about fire safety and in the event of a disaster, evacuation.
“But both the business community and other stakeholders are universally positive,” he said.
Baker believes government leaders can play a key supportive role.
“Basically, if government can be reminded of the challenges that business faced in the pandemic, it will be easier for business to recover,” he said.
The chamber has not met in person since the beginning of the pandemic, said Andrea Inks, the chamber’s treasurer. It has, however, met on Zoom. Its first in-person meeting for this year is scheduled for Monday.
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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