Monroe Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Una Wirkebau came in like a whirlwind and took the city by storm. Now, she is bidding Monroe farewell and seeking other opportunities.
Wirkebau took the helm in April 2014, after former director Annique Bennett accepted a position in the Snohomish County Executive's Office of Economic Development. The Monroe Chamber of Commerce is a member-driven nonprofit organization dedicated to the health of the Monroe business community, which it seeks to promote through events, social media, after-hours networking opportunities and monthly luncheons.
The chamber is led by a volunteer board of directors and has two full time staff; operations manager Shelley Nyhammer and Wirkebau. Wirkebau said while her time in Monroe has been rewarding, her financial situation has changed, requiring her to locate a job that can offer a more competitive salary.
The Monroe Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors will now be tasked with finding a replacement.
"I've completely enjoyed myself while I was here,GÇ¥ Wirkebau said. "I've made some amazing friends and met some absolutely incredible people, and it's been such an incredible honor.GÇ¥
After coming on board in 2014, Wirkebau immersed herself in Monroe and the Sky Valley community. She joined numerous boards and committees, including the Snohomish County Lodging Association, the Everett Community College Advisory Board, the Sky Valley Recreation Group, the Snohomish County Committee for Improved Transportation, the Cascade Loop Association and Monroe's Lodging Tax Advisory Committee. She familiarized herself with Monroe's manufacturing business community, along with its service and retail environment.
She collaberated with the Monroe Police Department to form the retail theft prevention group and joined the Monroe Rotary Club.
Wirkebau coordinated the chamber's traditional series of events, including the Monroe Community Awards, the Chamber's Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, the Monroe Fair Days Parade and Light Up Monroe, and sought ways to enhance certain events by adding street fairs and additional family oriented activities. She worked to create new events like Arti Gras, a three-day celebration and extension of an event created by the Saaski Gallery.
She collaborated with a local business owner to create this year's Polar Plunge, and took on the Monroe's Music in the Park Summer Concert series. She partnered with the city on numerous events, such as the King of Wake and the INT League Taste of Tye Wakeboarding events.
She fought to keep the Community Transit bus route on Village Way, helped support the Monroe Public Schools 2015 school bond measure and tackled downtown Monroe parking regulations. She coordinated joint chamber events, giving multiple chambers of commerce the opportunity to mingle, even traveling to Darrington after the Oso slide to support the community. She authored weekly newsletters, highlighting local events and activities related to Monroe and the outlying areas.
"I'm the type of person, if I see something needs to be done and nobody is taking care of it, and I'm capable of taking care of it, then I'm going to take care of it,GÇ¥ Wirkebau said.
She zeroed in on Monroe's downtown core, organizing cleanup events. She sat on the city of Monroe's Comprehensive Plan Citizens' Advisory Board, and when planning commissioners sought to exclude Monroe's downtown core as a specific area of emphasis in the updated plan, she fought for its inclusion.
"I'm the one who pushed for that. I'm the one who was down there talking to council,GÇ¥ Wirkebau said. "We have to make that a priority.GÇ¥
The city's inclusion of a comprehensive plan goal specific to the downtown core is one of her most significant accomplishments, she said. That and the Carnation steam stack, which was painted last year after Wirkebau forged a relationship with property owner Fred Wolfstone.
The steam-stack paintjob was a long-term effort, and although the stack has received criticism from some residents, Wirkebau is proud of her achievement.
"It looks a thousand percent better than it did before,GÇ¥ she said.
Wirkebau has used social media extensively while in her position, to try to inform as many people as possible about activities in Monroe. She embarked on an aggressive social media campaign over the summer, after a Music in the Park sponsor had to withdraw funding for the Heart by Heart concert at Lake Tye. Wirkebau successfully raised $4,000 in less than a week, and the resulting concert performance was highly touted by more 1,000 guests from all over the region.
To Wirkebau, social media is a critical component of promoting the community to outside interests. Promoting Monroe within the city is one thing, said Wirkebau, but the city needs to focus on broadening its influence to extend across the region.
"That's how you get to the tipping point,GÇ¥ Wirkebau said. "By being on Twitter and talking about our community to the people that aren't in our community; by blasting events that are going on and getting them out there. That shows the greater Seattle area that Monroe does have cool things that are going on.GÇ¥
The fact that the city of Monroe has waived permit fees for new businesses in the downtown Monroe area until 2016 is something that needs to be publicized far and wide, especially outside of Snohomish County, she said. While at the chamber, Wirkebau did her part to help promote the city, but suggests permanent staff dedicated to economic development could even better serve the city.
"This community really needs somebody solely here for economic development,GÇ¥ Wirkebau said. "We need somebody that that's all they're doing. They're just doing events, they're just doing tourism, they're just doing economic development. If there's an empty building, they're finding somebody for it, and they're talking about the community.GÇ¥
Monroe is filled with amazing attributes, Wirkebau said. Nestled next to the Skykomish River, she said the city of Monroe features more parks than any other Snohomish County community. Wirkebau hopes more will be done to help establish more hotels, which is one of the city's greatest challenges.
The Monroe Chamber of Commerce is funded through membership fees and Lodging Tax funds (LTAC), which are paid along with sales tax anytime a person stays in a Monroe hotel. The money is funneled through the state and a portion is returned to the city, which distributes the funding in the form of grants. Meant to promote tourism, any organization that can demonstrate it brings "heads to bedsGÇ¥ is eligible to apply for LTAC funds.
Monroe only has three hotels, and is currently maxed out at approximately $60,000 to $65,000 per year.
"That will not change until we have other hotels,GÇ¥ Wirkebau said. "I've been working on it, hard, since I got here, but I don't have the time to just do that. And you need somebody that's just doing that.GÇ¥
Wirkebau's efforts have been supported by Nyhammer, who has been with the chamber for three years. Nyhammer has supported Wirkebau's efforts on the backend, completing a lot of the footwork. She publishes Wirkebau's weekly newsletter, distributes event flyers to downtown business owners and serves as the project manager for events like the Monroe Fair Days parade, the community awards ceremony and the chamber's volunteer appreciation dinner.
"Working with Una has been a wonderful experience,GÇ¥ Nyhammer said. "She has such great energy and passion; there is no such thing as "another boring day at the office' when she is around. Her enthusiasm is infectious and she will be greatly missed.GÇ¥
Nyhammer will be holding down the fort on her own as the chamber seeks a new director.
The executive director position is being advertised on Craigslist here: https://seattle.craigslist.org/sno/bus/5300565972.html. For more information on the Monroe Chamber of Commerce, visit http://choosemonroe.com/.Monroe Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Una Wirkebau, right, is leaving the chamber to pursue other opportunities.
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