Business & economy, In the community

Ontario chamber leader focuses on connecting people, businesses and the community

ONTARIO – John Breidenbach likes to connect the dots.

As chief executive officer of the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce, he acts as a bridge linking businesses, tourism, government and local communities.

The Ontario chamber’s role in the community will come into sharp focus Friday, April 19, at Four Rivers Cultural Center when the organization sponsors its annual fundraising dinner.

The dinner begins at 5 p.m. with a social hour followed by a steak dinner at 6 p.m. The gathering will also include a silent and live auction with about 100 items up for bid.

Breidenbach’s job as the chief executive begins each morning around 8 a.m. when he arrives at the chamber office at 251 Southwest 9th St. in Ontario.

“I check emails to see if there anything directly affecting local businesses and look at headlines from other towns,” he said.

Then he will check in with a local business to get a pulse on how they are doing. His questions are polite and conversational. He might ask about their business, about sales or about their opinion on a particular local news item. It’s all crucial information to Breidenbach because it helps paint a larger picture regarding the local economy.

John Breidenbach, chamber president and CEO, keeps his focus on local businesses and economic development. One of his goals for the future is to attract more businesses to Malheur County. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

Then he’s off to attend a meeting. Breidenbach is member of six local boards, including the Snake River Economic Development Alliance, Revitalize Ontario, the Eastern Oregon Visitors Association and the Ontario Planning and Zoning Commission.

Then he’s back to his office where chances are there will be dozens of email and phone messages waiting.

Messages from people who want to know about fishing on the Owyhee River. Or an individual from a Europe who is interested in visiting the Oregon Trail. Or a person who wants to start a new business in town.

“People do want to come to this area,” he said.

Breidenbach is proud of his role as a connector.

“I promote chamber members and help them network with each other and promote them through the community. I also serve as an advocate for them if they are having issues with government relations,” he said.

Recently, a local business needed to move from its current location and Breidenbach stepped in to help. He contacted Dan Cummings, Ontario city manager, for assistance.

“We started to call around to see who had the square feet for the business. I was able to connect the dots. Really the chamber is about connecting people who have property with people who need property,” he said.

His job touches facets of economic development, tourism, local government, land use planning and education.

“The chamber is a place to go to for information about the community. We can help people start a business,” he said.

An important part of his job is also promoting quality of life locally.

That’s where big, local signature events – such as the America Global Village Festival and the annual Winter Wonderland Parade – come into play. The dinner and auction April 19 are especially important, he said. The event is a way to show residents the important role the organization plays in the county, he said.

“The Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce is truly an area chamber where we serve the whole region. My board and I run it like a business, not a club,” said Breidenbach.

Breidenbach also keeps a close eye on decisions the Legislature makes that could impact local businesses.

A 2022 law regarding overtime pay for agriculture workers was a focus for Breidenbach from the moment the idea evolved into legislation.

“I needed my people involved in agriculture to know this was going on,” he said.

Still his focus starts and ends with local businesses.

“It is my job to work with the businesses and the city to make sure the businesses are treated fairly,” he said.

The chamber is a membership-driven organization, said Breidenbach, and one of his goals for the next year is to attract more merchants to join.

“We are trying to grow by 50 members. I’ve already added 13 since the beginning of the year,” he said.

He said the roster of members runs the gamut from big corporations, such as Walmart to small “mom and pop” stores to individuals.

Breidenbach – who works for a 15-member board – said while small and large businesses play a pivotal role in the business health in the county, agriculture is still the main economic engine.

“It is huge. I don’t think people realize that. You have the hospitality (industry), education, government and schools but most of our jobs are very much agriculture-based,” he said.

High costs continue to stymie businesses, he said.

“I just don’t mean the small mom and pop retail either. Rents are high and it doesn’t matter if you’re are a mom and pop or a corporation. Everything costs more than it used to,” he said.

The struggle with rising costs impacted the chamber, said Breidenbach. For years the chamber held a weekly lunch forum but recently cut the gathering to just once a month.

Businesses, he said, also continue to struggle with retaining workers.

“Even in the government sector you have people jumping jobs. People don’t ride for the brand like they used to,” he said.

The chamber also works to build for the future through its leadership program, said Breidenbach.

The 24-year-old program is a joint effort between the chamber and Treasure Valley Community College. Participants can earn one college credit through the program, said Breidenbach.

“We want to build leaders to get to know the community and each other and who will stay here,” he said.

As part of the program, the chamber hosts tours of local businesses for participants.

Breidenbach, 60, said local chambers are crucial.

“They are important to keep a sense of community. The best thing about our chamber is we have a permanent home, we are open and staffed,” he said.

He said the chamber collects about $50,000 a year in dues and supplements its budget through special events such as the America Global Village Festival, sponsorships and the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce For You auction.

“We do it so we don’t have to raise dues,” he said.

Breidenbach was born in Port Angeles, Wash., and grew up in Heppner. After high school, he came to Ontario to go to Treasure Valley Community College. He didn’t stay long joining the U.S. Army in 1986 for a three-year stint

Out of the Army, and eligible for the GI Bill, he decided to go back to TVCC and study political science.

“I thought I might as well use it (the GI Bill) and my sister lived in Payette,” said Breidenbach.

Breidenbach said he didn’t acquire a degree at TVCC but instead went into the local workforce.

He worked as a manager of the Sears store in the West Park Plaza mall, then as a sales manager at the Ontario radio station, KSRV.

He also said he worked at the Kraft Heinz in Ontario and at Woodgrain in Fruitland before he was offered the chamber job in 2004.

His chamber work can be consuming, even into his private life.

“When I’m not doing chamber stuff, I’m doing chamber stuff,” he said.

He said, though, when he does get free time he “goes fishing once and a while.”

“The best thing about this job is I get to serve the community,” said Breidenbach. “I couldn’t do what I do without great people serving on local committees and boards and the great team at the chamber office.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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