CANNON BEACH - The Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce is in critical financial condition, with enough money only to pay the next round of bills and cover the next payroll.

"Then we'll have enough left over for the next two or three weeks, and that's it," said the chamber's accountant, Buzz Johnson.

Nearly 80 business owners who gathered in a town hall meeting Tuesday listened to Johnson compare the chamber's worrisome financial situation to the last scene of the movie "Thelma and Louise." In the movie, the two women drove over a cliff.

The news only added to the frustration expressed by those attending the session, which was hurriedly organized by the chamber board last week after several business owners complained about the chamber's lack of services during the board's regular monthly meeting.

In a frank and open discussion Tuesday, the business owners said changes were needed at the chamber, from the way it was managed to the ownership of the chamber's building.

Board member Carol Hungerford said the chamber's financial problems were caused in part because membership dues are down, as well as support for special projects.

"My sense is that we're not doing the job. Why would you join the chamber if it's not doing anything for you? Of course our membership dues are down," Hungerford said. "So in an effort to correct the situation, we want to know what you want us to do."

Much of the problem was created by a growing gap between the membership and the board, said Johnson, a former board member himself.

"There has been a board, and there has been the community. (There's) no interaction other than animosity," Johnson said.

But Val Ryan, owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, said some of the blame had to be placed on members who never attended the chamber meetings.

"And then whenever there's a problem, we smell blood, and we finally gather, and that's too bad," she said.

"A chamber of commerce, it seems to me, defines itself," Ryan added. "Commerce is business. It exists to promote businesses in the area it represents. And that means marketing. If there is no marketing going on, no pubic relations or advertising ... then it is not functioning as a viable unit that is taking care of businesses. That's what I want."

Marketing the town brings people to Cannon Beach, and those people will find her books, Ryan added.

That's why Ryan and several other business owners organized the Cannon Beach Business Associates Inc. The group raised $48,000 in 10 days and hired a public relations firm in Portland to market Cannon Beach during the off-season.

"Our perception was that it wasn't getting done, and if it wasn't getting done, somebody has to do it. Otherwise you just die by attrition," Ryan added.

EVOO Cooking School owner Bob Neroni, who hosts a business group at his store every Wednesday morning, noted that several business "splinter groups" exist, and they're all spending money in different ways to promote the town and themselves.

"It's clear that, verbalized or not, there's a lack of confidence," Neroni said. Somehow, he added, everyone needs to come together and focus energy and money on restructuring the chamber.

Several of those at the meeting criticized the chamber's management. City Manager Rich Mays, who is a chamber board member, said the board recently reviewed the performance of Chamber Director Kim Bosse; it was the first review the board had done in 12 years. Mays did not disclose what was said during the review, but added that a personnel committee had been organized to look at "personnel issues and policies." Bosse has also been directed to create committees that will enhance voluntarism and an ambassadors program, Mays said.

Bosse was not at the meeting because she was on vacation, said Board President Mark Piscitelli.

Several other chambers use volunteer help extensively, especially in the visitors centers, said board members and others who had talked to chamber directors along the coast.

Half of the Astoria chamber's $500,000 budget comes from proceeds of a 9 percent city room tax, Piscitelli said. The chamber has five full-time staff to operate the chamber and visitors center and hires a Portland public relations firm to do its marketing.

The Cannon Beach chamber works with a $300,000 budget and has one full-time director and three part-time staff.

The chamber is also paying on a $100,000 debt on its building and another $30,000 on credit line debt, Johnson said. Although the chamber owns the building, the city owns the land.

At one time the building had been debt-free, but the chamber had to borrow money on it last year to replace the deck and doors and to make other repairs. The city also contributed $25,000 to the project.

The repairs cost $70,000, Johnson said, "but we borrowed an extra $30,000 to exist."

Despite the chamber's debt, the visitors center, which the city contracts with the chamber to operate, will stay open, said Mays. The City Council is considering increasing the lodging taxes, he added, but that increase may go to promoting the arts.

At the end of the meeting, Piscitelli asked how many participants wanted greater emphasis on marketing and advertising, and everyone raised their hand. They also agreed they wanted the chamber director's job description to include marketing skills.

When asked if the city should buy the chamber building, most people agreed, and they unanimously said they wanted the chamber to continue publishing the Cannon Beach Magazine, which goes to tourists.

In addition, they asked the chamber board to consider expanding Sandcastle Day, the Stormy Weather Arts Festival and Haystack Holidays, as well as adding new off-season events that would attract tourists to town.

When asked what the board's timeline was for making changes, Hungerford said the board wanted to move quickly.

Board member Tracy Abel agreed. "We don't have time not to make a decision," she said. "There are a lot of great ideas out there, but it goes back to one thing: We can't implement any of this where we stand financially right now. That's the bottom line."

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