Reloading the Metro Chamber
Facing increased competition and dwindling influence, historic business institution selected first female leader
When Brian Holloway’s membership in the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce came up for renewal a couple of years ago, it wasn’t difficult to move on.
Holloway, a 68-year-old land development consultant based in East Sacramento, had been involved with the chamber off and on for years, even serving on its board. After the chamber’s political action committee put out an attack mailer on future Mayor Darrell Steinberg in the 2016 election, though, Holloway and at least six people he knew opted to leave.
“My world is a very political world and you don’t want to be part of an organization that makes dumb political decisions,” Holloway told SN&R. “After the Steinberg faux pas, a lot of us felt that being a member of the chamber, especially being on the board, was kind of an albatross.”
Roughly two years on, the chamber finds itself at a crossroads.
The organization’s latest chief executive officer and first woman to hold the position, Amanda Blackwood, started May 1 and is already leading the chamber in a more progressive direction. But she’s also dealing with residual fallout from people like Holloway, who’ve vowed never to return to what they view as an entity with diminishing influence.
Holloway remembers a different time for the chamber, which dates to 1895 and today counts 1,400 businesses around the region as members. When Holloway returned to Sacramento after college, the chamber was a force at City Hall and county offices.
“If there was a blue ribbon committee, the Metro Chamber was either the chair or had a number of seats,” Holloway said.
Today, this role seems to be played more by groups like the Greater Sacramento Economic Council, the North State Building Industry Association and Region Business. The leader of the last group, Josh Wood, has been the public face in recent months of a campaign against a city effort to establish a rent control ordinance.
Blackwood acknowledged that times have changed for chambers of commerce, not just in Sacramento but throughout the country.
“Before [the] digital age, that was it,” Blackwood said of chambers. “When you moved to a city, if you were a resident or a business, the chamber of commerce was one of the first places that you went.”
She continued, “Now, just with the internet in general, people can find out maybe what they want to know in a different way. So for chambers, you really have to understand what’s important [to people.]”
The results of a strategic planning effort, begun under her predecessor Peter Tateishi, who left to become CEO of Associated General Contractors of California, should be known by year’s end.
Blackwood has had to acknowledge other past problems for the chamber aside from the 2016 mayoral snafu. In June, the Sacramento Business Journal noted that the chamber had over-reported its membership by at least 30 percent in years past. Blackwood told SN&R membership numbers shrank because the chamber changed its membership model and software program for tracking members.
“There was no intention to do anything misleading in any way,” Blackwood said. “I think we are just consolidating data and saying, ‘We’re on a new system. We know this is clean. We can move forward with this and we want to be transparent about our numbers.'”
In other respects, though, the chamber seems healthy. Its annual Washington, D.C. lobbying trip, Cap-to-Cap, went smoothly this spring, with the chamber known to bring the largest contingent in the country. Steinberg has also worked with the chamber on his “Thousand Strong” youth-hiring initiative and recently secured the chamber’s endorsement for Measure U, his sales tax measure on the November ballot. The mayor didn’t respond to an interview request, though he told SacTown Magazine in late 2016 he could forgive the mailer.
Others have felt similarly, such as developer Mark Friedman who’s maintained his chamber membership. He was recently in Brooklyn with roughly 200 people as part of a chamber study mission.
“I was disappointed in the way in which the political action committee handled its engagement in the mayoral race,” Friedman said. “But that did not undercut for me the other good work that the chamber does on a range of other issues.”
Blackwood ran a consulting business before becoming head of the chamber and doesn’t have a college degree, though she was in the 2015-16 class for the Nehemiah Emerging Leaders Program, an incubator for regional leaders. A 35-year-old mother of two and Land Park resident, Blackwood’s excited to be the first woman to lead the chamber.
“There’s something very powerful when the person in a position of leadership understands your experience and looks like you,” Blackwood said. “It creates a safe space.”
Friedman is bullish about her hire.
“I thought it was actually a very, very bold and intelligent move to select her,” Friedman said. “She is clearly part of that new generation of young leaders who’re going to make a difference in Sacramento.”