Some people work their way up; others just start at the top. The Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce’s new president, Ken Oplinger, was running a chamber two days after he graduated from Willamette University, albeit in the tiny community of Gold Beach, Oregon. He’s back at the beach, but the stakes are a bit higher in Santa Barbara.
In his previous position, he headed up the chamber in Bellingham, Washington, about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver. “If you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen one chamber,” said Oplinger, jokingly explaining that every organization reflects its community. But in choosing Oplinger, the Santa Barbara business booster’s board was apparently pleased with the similarities between Bellingham and the American Riviera. They have roughly the same populations, and they are both nestled in scenic geographical digs between mountains and water. Oplinger — a native of Tempe, Arizona — described Bellingham as a “progressive, slow growth” community with a large university, but “colder and wetter” than Santa Barbara.
Although he’s only been on the job for a week, Oplinger said it has become immediately clear to him that one of the unique challenges to Santa Barbara is the cost of living. In fact, he said, it’s likely he won’t live in Santa Barbara himself, and he made sure that was okay with the board of directors early on in their conversations. “I’m not independently wealthy,” he said.
Combine the high cost of real estate with the fact that “for some, affordable housing is a four-letter word,” he said, and Oplinger believes it is important to increase alternative transportation options from Ventura County to Santa Barbara, including commuter rail. (The Santa Barbara County Association of Governments has arranged for everything it needs to run such a line, but the final hurdle — and no small one at that — is gaining Union Pacific’s permission to use its tracks.) “When I hear leaders in the tech industry say employees aren’t able to live here, these types of things concern me,” said Oplinger.
A planning commissioner for three years in Visalia and six years in Blaine, Washington, Oplinger is not against higher density, and he is hip to the fact that younger adults now value proximity to dining and attractions more than having a big yard. At the same time, he would like to honor the community’s concern for preserving the character of Santa Barbara. Plus, there is only so much we can build here. “If people in this community think $650,000 is affordable housing, then they are out of touch,” he said.
Infrastructure in general is a real concern for Oplinger, who said that if you ask businesses what they want from government, nine out of 10 will say infrastructure. He has already discussed with Mayor Helene Schneider how they can make some headway on addressing deferred maintenance projects. Good public schools are also important, he said, noting he has been surprised at the shabbiness of some of the campuses in town, as well as the number of portable classrooms he’s seen.
In helping to raise the profile of a chamber whose relevance has waned in recent years, Oplinger plans on increasing outreach to both members and the community. He would also like to collaborate more with the other area chambers so as to paint the South Coast as one cohesive region. His predecessor, Steve Cushman, was nudged into retirement after a 24-year run.
A former member of the Blaine City Council, Oplinger downplayed his political ambitions, saying he got along fine in arch-conservative Visalia, where he also led the chamber, just as well as in liberal Bellingham. Furthermore, he said, in his role as president he represents the business community, not himself. For the Chamber of Commerce, he said, politics is about “finding solutions to problems,” not partisanship. He predicted that the chamber will have disagreements with the City Council, but said, “You’re not going to see me pounding on the podium at council meetings.”
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An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Oplinger is a Republican. In fact, he declined to share his party affiliation.