The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce must adopt the methods of a "startup" entrepreneurial company if it is going to reclaim an influential voice in the community and region.
It could be Palo Alto's first "re-startup," not unlike Apple Computer with the return of the late Steve Jobs.
Attaining a "startup feeling" for the chamber is the vision of former Mayor and Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg, who has taken on the leadership position of both CEO and president.
In its venerable history, the chamber has gone through a number of evolutions. It has faced severe financial challenges and major changes in policies, vision and direction since its creation in the sleepy Palo Alto of 1909.
"The chamber of the 20th Century is not the same as the chamber of the 21st Century, unless you're in East Cupcake, Iowa," Kleinberg quipped in an interview recently. Well, not having been to East Cupcake. ... But one gets the idea.
Yet sweeping social and economic changes and lack of strong, consistent leadership have left the chamber alternately drifting between financial crises to new locations, mostly around downtown Palo Alto.
Kleinberg readily acknowledges the chamber's problems and lack of influence in city/community affairs.
There have been questionable -- but not illegal -- expenditures, even cases where staff members have yelled at chamber members and some personality issues involving board members.
One of Kleinberg's immediate steps was to institute a training program for board members about appropriate interactions and responsibilities. There have been "very committed and wonderful people" serving on the board, but they have been hampered in effectiveness by how the board performed as a whole.
Lack of strong interest in (and financial support of) the chamber on the part of local businesses has been a longtime handicap.
Membership in the chamber has never been compulsory, but in past decades it was considered essential to be part of the community. This feeling has faded over the years, as the chamber has faded in influence and community "presence," however that is defined.
Part of that has been the creation of the Business Improvement District (BID), created by Palo Alto developer Charles "Chop" Keenan and others. BID participation is compulsory in downtown, and one of its contributions to the community was founding the Downtown Streets Team that assists homeless persons and helps keeps the streets clean.
It also has pushed for building parking structures to relieve the chronic parking situation that has overflowed into residential neighborhoods north and south of the downtown commercial core.
But the BID clearly "siphons off" from the chamber, Kleinberg says, adding that perhaps they should be linked or combined. A task force has been formed to look into that.
Kleinberg and others are seeking to strengthen the chamber by recruiting from the young professionals in the area for board membership. They hope to bring in new thinking characterized by IDEO and the d.school (for design) at Stanford University, along with the futuristic thinking behind the Teslas and innovative elements of Hewlett-Packard and other long-established businesses.
"It's time to close the book and move on," Kleinberg said of the recent turnover in leadership and other challenges.
Kleinberg's initiative is not the first move to redesign, or restart, the chamber. In March 1968, one year shy of the chamber's 60th anniversary, I wrote an article for the erstwhile Palo Alto Times that was headlined: "Action keynote of 'new' Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce."
The chamber despite its age was "showing remarkable signs of rejuvenation, some might even say a rebirth" from the traditional role of printing maps and being a booster organization.
The new approach is "a major drive to make the community it represents everything that a more traditional chamber usually says it is."
Board President Allan Brown and chamber Manager Richard "Dick" Kluzek set up four special planning boards to address economic, environmental, governmental and organizational affairs.
The organizational group focused on traditional chamber activities such as membership drives, community activities and expanding services to its 1,000 members at the time. (Today's membership is in the low 400s.)
Economic issues focused on job creation, job-related development of vacant properties and jobs in a sub-region that included East Palo Alto.
Environmental issues included "the future effect of population age changes on the community; local and regional mass transit; getting better use from educational facilities; and the Palo Alto-East Palo Alto economics and job relationship."
Governmental affairs included everything from proposed revisions in the City Charter to regional government proposals, inter-city traffic, flood-control problems and local impacts of state and federal legislation.
Some issues never go away.
The chamber embarked on a three-year financial drive to eliminate the annual $8,000 city contribution "so it would have more latitude in expressing opinions."
Kluzek increasingly exercised that latitude over years of leadership, to the point of creating an occasionally abrasive "us and them" feeling. The chamber relocated to the then-new Palo Alto Office Center in the Stanford Industrial (now Research) Park.
But in doing so, he increased the feeling in the commercial areas of downtown and California Avenue that no one was representing the interests of the businesses there. That strengthened two organizations -- Downtown Palo Alto, Inc., and the California Avenue Area Development Association (created by Realtor Mike Golick) -- that became virtual mini-chambers of commerce.
Another big rebirth of the chamber occurred in the latter 1980s under board President John Northway, a longtime Palo Alto architect and city observer. Northway spearheaded creation of the Leadership Palo Alto (LPA) group to give would-be local leaders a solid backing in history and issues relating to the Palo Alto area. LPA itself has been going through a restart of its own in recent years and will be linking with the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future at a major event next June 11.
So from future leaders to the future of Palo Alto, the chamber under Kleinberg and others has its challenges laid out -- to avoid being another déjà vu all over again.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at email@example.com. He also writes periodic blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com.