Lesnak: Chamber on solid footing despite pandemic

Mike Genet
Tom Lesnak

After the organization emerged debt-free over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic shelved the Independence Chamber of Commerce’s signature event, the Santa-Cali-Gon Days Festival, for this year.

That doesn’t give Chamber President/CEO Tom Lesnak a gloomy financial outlook, though. Santa-Cali-Gon is both the Chamber’s largest expense and fundraiser, and Lesnak said many vendors, encouraged by last year’s festival, have already rolled over this year’s deposits to next year. For those vendors, the Chamber is setting up a virtual booth experience during the upcoming Labor Day weekend, when the festival normally happens.

“From year to year, we never know what that’s going to be,” Lesnak said of the festival’s net revenue. “It ranges from all over the place. If it rains all weekend, that’s one thing.”

The Chamber does not publicly disclose specific financial information, Lesnak said, though at the 2019 chamber banquet then-chairperson Jonathan Zerr said the 2018 festival netted $193,000.

“Last year was the perfect storm,” Lesnak said. “We had great weather and Wynonna Judd (as a headline act). The vendors were happy with last year, we had a lot of pre-pays for this year and a lot of them are rolling over to next year.”

The pandemic has also pinched regular small events like luncheons for the Independence Chamber and other chambers of commerce, Lesnak noted.

“Those have pretty much gone away for all of us for now,” he said. “We’re all having to rethink how we can present that. It’s like all businesses.”

Lesnak said the Chamber, as a 501c(6) organization, was exempt from applying for PPP federal aid this spring, but it has lobbied to be included if the government approves another round of stimulus funds.

Being debt-free, though, allows the Chamber to breath a little easier during the pandemic.

“if this had been a couple years ago, who knows what would’ve happened,” Lesnak said. “We’ll have some challenging times, but we’ve had no furloughs, we haven’t laid off staff and we have no plans to do so.

“We’re a member-based organization, and we’ll continue to serve our members in one way or another.”

Lesnak said the Chamber and the city of Independence have started productive discussions for a new contract for service when the current one ends in October.