Chamber's new CEO favoring a pragmatic approach

During his first 90 days leading the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce & Industry, Guy Occhiogrosso said he plans to brush up on his listening skills.

Occhiogrosso, who was named president and CEO of the Bellingham chamber in late January, takes over on March 3.

His first few months will likely involve a lot of face-to-face meetings with chamber members and others in the community, he said. And as he began winding down his tenure at the Ferndale Chamber of Commerce, where Occhiogrosso has served as executive director since 2006, he wasn’t quite ready to talk specifics about the future.

“I don’t want to go in and say I’m going to change this or that. My philosophy tends to be: Is it good for the membership?” Occhiogrosso said. “I’m very member-oriented. I believe in membership value.”

Occhiogrosso will participate in his first chamber member event as president and CEO during a networking breakfast on Friday, March 14.

The chamber’s first public event under his leadership will be an installment of the organization’s regular Speaker Series on Tuesday, March 18, featuring Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws.

Occhiogrosso (it’s pronounced “AH-chi-GRAH-so,” although he said in jest that he accepts pronunciations “any way they come out.”) spoke with The Bellingham Business Journal in February about several topics likely to be at the forefront of local business over the next few years.

On the rollout of the Affordable Care Act:

The start of the so-called employer mandate in the new health reform law was pushed back further after the Obama Administration issued new regulations in early February on a provision of the law that requires certain large employers provide workers with health care insurance or face fines.

The mandate was initially set to go into effect in 2014, but federal officials chose to delay its implementation until the following year.

Now, only companies with 100 full-time employees or more will need to begin providing coverage by 2015. Companies with between 50 and 99 full-time workers who do not provide coverage won’t face fines until 2016.

Members of the president’s administration said the delays were necessary to allow businesses time to adapt to the new requirements. The employer mandate has been among the more controversial aspects of the reform, particularly among the law’s opponents.

In Ferndale, Occhiogrosso said he has actually had fairly minimal conversations with business owners as to how the gradual implementation of the Affordable Care Act has impacted their operations, so far.

But he said he has noticed some confusion over health care reform among local business owners, especially when it comes to following changes to the law’s deadlines and timetables.

“The people in our community that, I would say, are responsible and/or trained to interact and deal with that—your HR professionals, you insurance offices—a lot of them are having difficulty understanding the process,” he said. “It’s hard to prepare for if you don’t know exactly what’s to be expected, and when it’s going to be expected.”

On the Gateway Pacific Terminal: 

Occhiogrosso’s predecessor at the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber, Ken Oplinger, was an outspoken supporter of the controversial proposal by SSA Marine of Seattle to build a large coal and bulk commodities terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County.

Oplinger joined labor leaders and other business groups favoring the proposal, making pro-terminal arguments at public events and in newspaper columns. Those arguments typically focused on the number of jobs proponents of the terminal claim the project could bring to the county.

But Occhiogrosso was less inclined to speak freely about his opinion on the matter, at least for now.

He declined to say whether he would support or oppose the Gateway terminal once he starts as the chamber’s CEO, saying he would rather wait until he gets perspective from the chamber’s executive board.

He also noted that the Ferndale chamber restricts its directors’ advocacy of certain business interests, particularly ones that can be politically volatile, meaning he has had to be careful when addressing the topic.

While acknowledging that the chamber members in Whatcom County likely contain both supporters and opponents of the Gateway project, he was careful to parse his words.

“I don’t know what the strategic perspective of the [Bellingham/Whatcom chamber’s] board of directors will be. It’s a delicate issue; it really is,” he said. “I would say that it’s a topic that we, as the chamber, should be informed on. But at this point, I can’t say how my participation in that topic will play out.”

On the impact of cross-border traffic from British Columbia into Whatcom County: 

Occhiogrosso said he believes that the focus on Canadian visitors’ impact to local retailers has attracted attention away from other effects and complexities of Whatcom County’s proximity to the border.

He said cross-border commerce involves more than just Canadians driving to Bellingham to shop at big-box stores or catch flights from the city’s airport. A lot of Canadian-owned businesses exist in Whatcom County, including in Ferndale, he said.

“I think we underestimate and undervalue the impact it has on our community,” he said. “We forget how much true cross-border activity really goes on here and how much of an impact it has on all of us.”

On Washington state’s future legal marijuana industry: 

Officials with the Washington State Liquor Control Board said in February that they were on track to begin issuing the first business licenses to pot producers and processors in March. Licenses to the state’s first pot retailers will likely follow soon after.

Speaking generally, Occhiogrosso said he thought the new pot marketplace raises some interesting questions for chambers of commerce. For example: If a chamber chose to deny membership to owners of pot stores, would that be seen as a restriction of free enterprise?

But with policies surrounding the new industry still in flux, it’s better to let lawmakers work out the details before forming an opinion, he said.

“I think it’s too early for the chamber to make any kind of determination,” Occhiogrosso said. “There are more important things that we can do as an organization than anticipate what policymakers and lawmakers will ultimately decide.”

Evan Marczynski, associate editor of The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com.

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