If you want to help shape Enumclaw’s future, join the local Chamber of Commerce, says CEO Troy Couch.
Or, we should say former CEO, as Couch will officially retire as the head of the Chamber as of tomorrow, Dec. 31.
“I’ve worked all my life, since I was 16 years old,” he told the Courier-Herald in a recent interview. “I’ve earned it.”
Couch grew up in Cincinnati, where he started his first business before he could legally drink, doing landscaping for subdivisions that didn’t fall under the care of various house owners.
He married his wife Debbie in 1988 and started looking west to live near mountains, eventually settling in Enumclaw in 1990.
Couch wasted little time getting involved in local business, buying Judy G’s Framing Shop in 1996 and keeping it open for 16 years (for the last stretch, he operated out of his home).
“Then 9/11 hit and destroyed the whole art industry,” he recalled, and the damage was further compounded by the 2008 recession. “I had to find something new… I could just go get a job, but I wanted to do something that’s going to make a difference.”
Couch eventually saw an opportunity in the Enumclaw Expo Center, and applied to be the head of the new Enumclaw Expo and Events Association in 2015, as the city of Enumclaw was looking to no longer be in charge of the venue.
The top gig instead went to Scott Gray. However, Gray was also a Chamber board member, and told Couch that the Chamber was looking for new leadership.
Couch jumped at the chance, “Because, for one, I wasn’t really satisfied with the Chamber at the time,” he said. “Being a business owner, I wasn’t happy with the direction the Chamber was going, and I thought it needed somebody that actually owned a business in town to guide it.”
He officially became CEO of the Chamber June 2015, and would run it for the next five-and-a-half years. Over his tenure, membership of the Chamber doubled from 100 members to more than 200, and the board was expanded from five members to 15.
“It was a job of passion,” Couch said. “Whatever it took to make it better, is what we did.”
Couch added that he’s retiring to spend some more time with his family, as well as to travel and camp.
WHAT IS THE CHAMBER?
Non-business owners of Enumclaw may not be familiar with all the Enumclaw Chamber does, even though the Chamber is very much involved in making the city what it is.
One of the biggest misconceptions people have about the Chamber, Couch said, is that the Chamber is not a charity (though it is a nonprofit).
It should be no surprise to learn the Chamber’s main functions is to represent local businesses — not just to the local city council, but to state and federal lawmakers as well.
“Whatever the businesses feel they want to see done… we’re their united voice,” Couch said.
However, there are several other responsibilities the Chamber takes on as well, like bringing people downtown through various events like the pre-COVID wine and beer walks, and directing economic development in the city by trying to find businesses that would click with the community and bring them in.
“We work hard to try to get the right type of businesses in town… a space opens up, we’re making phone calls, trying to get businesses in here that would fit with Enumclaw,” Couch continued. “We guide that a lot.”
But Couch said the Chamber also has a responsibility to the non-business owners of Enumclaw — “community betterment,” he put it.
This comes in the forms of the annual Christmas and Independence Day parades, putting up holiday lights across town, and closing down Cole Street for Halloween.
These events “don’t make us money… it doesn’t really help the businesses or anything, but it’s great for the community,” Couch added. “And it helps make Enumclaw what it is.”
The Chamber does all this on a budget of roughly $120,000 and, normally, three employees, which includes the CEO, an events coordinator, and an administrator.
But when COVID-19 hit, the Chamber had to quickly shift gears to make sure they survived the pandemic.
SACRIFICES, SUCCESS DURING COVID-19
When the pandemic first hit and businesses were ordered shut, the first thing the Chamber did was no longer require business members of the Chamber to pay their dues.
However, those fees are 70 percent of the Chamber’s budget, as there’s little outside money coming in to support it.
In order to balance the books, Couch and Kerry Solmonsen, the Chamber’s event coordinator, voluntarily furloughed themselves to forgo a paycheck (and the Chamber’s administrator had moved away, as well).
“I made Kerry start taking payroll again when we started planning some [events], when we really needed an event coordinator,” Couch said. However, he never took himself off furlough, because he wanted there to be a little money left in the budget for a new CEO when he retired. “But I never missed a day. Just kept on coming. That was because I have a passion for this community and a passion for the chamber — I believe in what it does.”
With the Chamber squared away, Couch was able to turn his attention to working with the Enumclaw City Council on how to keep local businesses, well, in business. One of the ideas to come out of that partnership were the downtown “streateries” — outdoor tents that allowed people to sit down and dine when indoor capacity was extremely limited.
While many businesses and restaurants in Enumclaw certainly haven’t thrived during the pandemic, Couch considers the partnership between the city council and the Chamber to be integral to Enumclaw’s survival.
“The success that we’ve had here, this COVID year, goes back to three years ago when we pushed hard to get business owners to run for city council, so that we would have a business-friendly council. And when I say business-friendly, it’s that they understand what businesses need, and why they ask for what they ask for,” Couch said. “Being able to work with the city council has been a huge advantage… it’s not about anybody making money as much as the town thriving. And when the town thrives, everybody survives.”
PASSING THE TORCH
Taking Couch’s place is Shannon Solveg, former owner of Nature’s Inventory, a local business on Cole Street.
“We needed somebody local, that lives here, and has a passion for this community,” Couch said. “And that we would like to have somebody that was a former business owner.”
Solveg easily fit the bill, Couch added, but that doesn’t mean she won’t have challenges of her own to face, even beyond COVID-19 recovery.
“I would say, honestly, that her first challenge is to not try and be me,” Couch said. “She has to lead her own way, and find her own ideas, and her own style. And get everybody comfortable with that.”
“She’s going to be great,” he added. “She’s got a great understanding of what businesses need from the Chamber. She’s also got a strong personality — she’s won’t be pushed around.”