Chamber of Commerce president says Washington County faring better than rest of nation regarding closures

ST. GEORGE — Don Willie, president and CEO of the the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, brought up a significant number at the recent State of the Chamber luncheon when discussing the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. He said 24% of small businesses nationwide have shut their doors.

President and CEO of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, Don Willie at the 2021 State of the Chamber luncheon, St. George, Utah, Jan. 20 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

However, this number took on a new light at Wednesday’s luncheon, as Willie drew attention to the closure rate in Washington County.

“In Washington County, we’ve seen a 6% closure rate,” Willie said to a room packed with chamber members. “That’s significant. We should be proud of that.”

In spite of business closures, the St. George chamber reached their membership goal of 1,000 members, a milestone for Willie, who stepped into his current role in January 2020.

Willie said he and his wife were vacationing in Mexico in March when he got word that the world changed, and he knew these changes were going to affect business in Southern Utah.

“I was on the beach when I learned that Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell (of the Utah Jazz) tested positive for COVID,” Willie said. “I spent the remaining four days on my computer, thinking about the chamber, strategizing, while on the beach.”

While March through August were given to transition, Willie said that September marked a tipping point.

“We had our most successful Golf Classic ever,” he said.

In 2020, Willie said the chamber gave over $900,000 to small businesses through the Greater Together Small Business Resilience Fund, intended to help those businesses keep their doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

St. George Area Chamber of Commerce events and social media coordinator Alexie DeMille checks guests into the 2021 State of the Chamber luncheon, St. George, Utah, Jan. 20 2021 | Photo by David Dudley, St. George News

Additionally, more than 1,000 establishments joined the Safe Southern Utah Campaign, which endeavors to help businesses remain open while also mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

“We also switched platforms overnight,” Willie said. “We went from mostly in-person events to meeting on Zoom. I was concerned about that, but we still managed to connect and help small businesses virtually.”

The chamber also made a push for Small Business Saturday, an annual call to support small businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as a response to the Black Friday sales push made by big box stores like Walmart and Target.

“Some small businesses said they recorded their highest sales ever,” Willie said. “That’s important to the chamber, because 90% our membership is made up of small businesses.”

Between 2018 and 2020, chamber membership increased from 903 to 1,048. Chamber Vice President Jordan Hess said that’s by design.

“We want to ensure that St. George is a great place to start and run a business,” Hess said. “Because of that, we’ll continue to grow. We want to be smart about our growth. We need to make sure that we build infrastructure to maintain a high quality of life.”

During the luncheon, the chamber welcomed Rebecca Box, assistant vice president at Security Services Federal Credit Union, who was elected to be the new chair of the board of directors. Kyle Case, CEO at the Huntsman World Senior Games, will be the board’s vice chair for 2021.

“I am extremely confident in the leadership of Rebecca and Kyle as they lead the SGACC board forward,” said past Chair Brad Buhanan. “They are of the highest professional caliber, respected among their peers and visionaries in our community. They have a weighty responsibility to move the chamber forward in a meaningful way – to grow businesses, foster economic opportunity and give back to the community.”

The chamber also welcomed five new board members, selected to serve a three-year term of service on the board: Tasha Toy, assistant vice president for campus diversity and chief diversity officer at Dixie State University; Shonie Christensen, agent/owner of The Shonie Allstate Insurance Group; Washington City Councilman Kurt Ivie; Annie Howell, CFO of Watts Construction; and Brenda Cody, field marketing manager of TDS Telecommunications Corp.

“We are thrilled to welcome these talented new board members who bring their diverse backgrounds, skill sets and knowledge to the leadership of the chamber,” Box said. “They were each carefully selected from a large group of nominees and provide a voice for their industry on the chamber board.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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