Steele: New chamber director hitting her stride

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer November 29, 2013 09:40 pm

Arlis Steele, the new Brookings Harbor Chamber of Commerce director, is all about building relationships, mediating differences, taking on major projects, revamping entire departments, starting complex tasks and forging strong teams.

After all, she’d done all that and more by the time she was 25 years old.

“I don’t believe in doing something if you can’t buy into it,” she said.

She brings that foundation to the local Chamber of Commerce, where she is striving to develop an identity for the area, develop new — and repair old — relationships, address problems and solutions and, in general, make Brookings and Harbor “amazing.”

She’s barely worked two months in her new position and she’s already gathered together the city of Brookings, Port of Brookings Harbor and the chamber —  organizations that even a few months ago, were barely speaking to one another.

Now, they’re working together to promote the city, market the area and join forces for even the 75th Annual Azalea Festival next May.

“Now we are one group working toward the same goal,” Steele said.

 “There is not one of us leading that pack. They bought into it, and are choosing it,” she said.

Steele learned how to do all this mediating, this developing of a group team ethic, at a young age.

As a child, Steel’s family moved quite a bit in the central valley of California; her interests were as varied as the towns in which she lived. At school, she was a flag monitor at age 6, worked in the lunch room and library, and was awarded the “peacemaker” award in second grade.

She pursued law for the latter part of her high school years — even ditching months of classes to watch court proceedings — but also dabbled in computer science, marketing and business administration.

By the time she was 12, Steele, a member of the Hopland Band of Pomo Indians, found herself the youngest member of the tribal youth council. There, she was mentored by a man who told her she would be running that tribe some day.

Not quite, but close.

“I was just shocked he would take me under his wing,” she said. “I was just a kid.”

But by 20, she was working with the gaming commission, running a casino in Hopland and absorbing like a sponge the best ways to manage people and run a business.

“He was precise, a real stickler,” Steele said. “He gave me insight about what I thought a business should be. To this day, I’ve never seen a business run like that.”

She then started work as the program manager of the tribal Youth and Senior Services department. On her first day at work, Steele was shown an office with a metal desk, chair and phone and told she needed to start the department — from the ground up.

“To me, a challenge is fun,” she said. “To walk into something you don’t know what to expect is a lot more fun than going in knowing.”

There was no system there; she didn’t even know what the department was supposed to do. Her superiors told her she had the funding; make it happen

“Tell us what it is you want to do with it — and I’m 20!” she said. “I went home crying a lot that year.”

In the next six years, she grew the budget multiple times over, oversaw the construction of a community gymnasium featuring programs ranging from sports to social services, arranged international trips for seniors and sponsored numerous annual events.

“It was a huge undertaking for someone my age,” she said. “The council challenged me at every turn. But I believe the harder people are to you, the better you become.”

She didn’t ever win the council over, but she was able to prove her competence to the point they weren’t interested in grilling her over every project she wanted to conduct or audit she underwent.

The administrator there left, however, and Steele felt a shift in her team — “something changing to the negative,” she said. The team she’d built was falling apart, and Steele knew it was time to leave.

She moved to Sutherlin to help her ailing brother-in-law, but the urge to be doing something kept creeping to the forefront of her mind. She moved back to Ukiah, and began work at the chamber there.

It was on the verge of closing its doors, and she was hired to figure out how to fix it.

“Everything needed change,” she said. “It was all old, all broken.”

She told the director she’d need a title and the authority to delegate, the flexibility to build programs and a pay increase.

“He said, ‘Done,’” she said. “So I was there.”

There, 600 of the 800 chamber members were no longer active, so she spent months rebuilding relationships and bringing businesses back into a productive fold. It worked. People from all over the state began asking how she’d done it.

“You know how when the chemistry of everything is all there?” she said. “That’s the kind of team we all believe in. I loved that team.”

She did the same thing in Dunsmuir, even though when driving through that town she was set against working again for a chamber.

“Then I saw these two boys walking down the street, sharing some candy,” she said. “It was the sweetest thing. I thought, ‘I want to be part of this community.’”

There were a lot of empty storefronts, however, a lot of broken relationships and rumor of funding problems.

She decided “right then and there” that the job was for her.

“By the time I left, Dunsmuir was one of the most progressive towns in Siskiyou County — even more so than Shasta,” she said. “The change was everywhere. Now you can go hear fantastic music, the food is completely local; we took pride in that.”

She moved to Crescent City last August and  — surprisingly, she said — didn’t get a chamber job there. But one of the board members with whom she’d interviewed was impressed enough with her resume that she kept asking Steele to consider working with her at the newspaper.

Steele had already put her resume in with the Brookings Harbor chamber — and believed she’d bombed in the last interview. Ten minutes after she got home, the phone was ringing with a job offer.

She said she knew she’d have big shoes to fill after Chamber Director Les Cohen retired.

“I’d heard of Les,” she said. “I’d knew he’d done some amazing work and laid a strong foundation. And there’s a delicate balance — marketing, politics, communications, social — all these things to juggle. It’s easy to become heavy in certain areas and light in others. Here, an imbalance had happened.”

The attitude of Oregonians — not too fast-paced like California, but not so laid back they’re perceived as lazy — helped her reforge the relationships between the city, chamber and port in recent weeks. 

“Part of it was time,” she said. “They needed someone to mediate. They were ready. And Gary (Milliman, city manager) was instrumental in giving me a chance to do this in a way we all look good. We’re all coming to the table, and I’m very happy with that.”