It’s a few months until local business icon Bill Tysseling retires, but he’s already nostalgic about his 27 years in Santa Cruz. He began working on local economic development in 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake, then directed programs at UC Extension in Silicon Valley and later Iowa State University, routinely flying out from Santa Cruz and staying for several days.
For the past decade, Tysseling has headed the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce.
But his roots are in Central Iowa, where he was a young lawyer and magistrate in Ames, not far from where he was raised. He fondly remembers the barn raisings from his childhood, which taught him about building community.
“You get this warm feeling. All these people turn out for a day, sometimes for a weekend—hundreds of people, families, and they build a barn on somebody’s homestead. It just felt like this act of grace, and I still think that’s true,” says Tysseling, now 69. “But at some point I realized—it was really one of those cathartic moments—that this was necessary. This was what it was to have a successful economic community.”
Tysseling plans to retire this spring from his post as the chamber’s executive director, which he’s held for 10 years. This vision of a collaborative economic community is what he’s tried to achieve at the chamber, he says.
Tysseling has spent much of his career responding to economic crises, first with the 1989 earthquake, then the 2002 dot-com bust.
After the 2008 recession, he led the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce through difficult budget cuts. The chamber’s classes on social media, technology and finance brought people together, Tysseling said.
“We had a community of people who would show up at 7:30 in the morning. A lot of them were in stress, struggling to find confidence in their business and around their job,” says Tysseling. “The education piece was good, but as much as anything, it was a community. People could come and feel like everybody was struggling and we were doing it together.”
Tysseling’s departure opens a new discussion on what directions the chamber should take next. The chamber is searching for his successor, who must deal with a local economy in which growth hinges on housing, transportation and water, he says.
The city has plans to address water sustainability with the 2015 Water Supply Advisory Committee report, and transportation with the pending passage of Measure D, an initiative the chamber supported that is currently ahead by 1,500 votes.
Housing is a trickier issue, Tysseling says. In September, Santa Cruz was named the second most unaffordable city in the U.S., behind Brooklyn, New York—something he says needs to change in order for Santa Cruz to be what he calls “an independent economy” that’s home to all kinds of workers.
If the city can’t fix its housing crisis, then it will become a vacation home community for wealthy people who live elsewhere, Tysseling says. “We’ll have to depend on a very significant part of our wealth coming from outside of the county,” he says, such as social security, savings and federal and state education funding.
“So it really changes the character of the community. There’ll be agriculture over the next 50 years. Agriculture will survive because we’re pretty dedicated to it. And our tourism—the place is just too beautiful not to have visitors, but it’s not impossible that the character of visitors changes, that it becomes higher-end.”
To sustain a working community, people must have a “sufferable commute” to their jobs. Time to destination also determines Santa Cruz’s competitiveness as a retail community, Tysseling says.
“We’re losing the ability to have, for instance, speciality shops, you know?” says Tysseling. “You can have a beautiful lamp store, but if only people who are within three miles of you can get there in less than 15 or 20 minutes, you start to lose customers. You can’t have specialty. You have to be general, and we become less interesting and then people drive over the hill to go shopping.”
Douglas Hull, a Santa Cruz marketing consultant and fundraiser who has been involved with the chamber since 2011, says Tysseling’s positions on housing and economic development are sound, but that the chamber has not acted on them. Local business leaders, Hull says, have failed to represent and capture the creative energy and talent that’s already here.
At Monterey Bay International Trade Association luncheons in 2012 and 2014, Rep. Sam Farr urged local businesses to brand the region by highlighting its strengths: agricultural technology, marine science, academic research and natural beauty. But no real leader came forward and progress hasn’t been made. The chamber was the natural candidate, Hull says.
“The chamber caters to a small, tight coterie of businesses. It is not representative of important communities who define the professionals who make this area home and attract Silicon Valley managers: artists, healers, among others,” Hull tells GT via email. “The Chamber is a conventional chamber, focused on traditional memberships and old-fashioned objectives, and does not tap into the resources that make the region so unique.”
Charles Eadie, principal at Santa Cruz planning firm Eadie Consultants and former board president at the chamber, says the chamber has a clearer brand than it did in the past.
“The next step is probably to take that further and to promote the community in a broader context,” Eadie says. “And I don’t know that it’s something that I think has been failing. I would just say that you have to take things one step at a time.”
Eadie says that going forward, the chamber could do more to attract younger people, women and people of color. Millennials approach civic engagement differently and are less likely to join a chamber, Eadie says, adding that the chamber has to adapt to how young people communicate, and find ways to create a diverse membership.
Greg Carter, Tysseling’s predecessor at the chamber and an Aptos attorney, says that unlike other chambers which have a conservative, corporate bent, Santa Cruz’s chamber has both small business owners and large corporations. Tysseling, he notes, inherited a chamber that had many talented locals who had lost tech jobs when the dot-com bubble burst, but stayed in Santa Cruz to start their own businesses.
“The chamber is a conduit of information to the business community, and the more players you’ve got and the more diverse the business community is, the more challenging efficient distribution of information becomes,” Carter says.
Luckily, communicating with all types of business owners has been one of Tysseling’s strengths, Carter says.
“It’s part and parcel of what that position is,” Carter says. “You spend your time balancing being strategic and proactive and getting ready for the next economic wave, and then adjusting as you go forward.”