As the city’s de facto marketing arm and a support network for local businesses, the St. Helena Chamber of Commerce has to be a major player in revitalizing the downtown.

In recent weeks we’ve met with Amy Carabba, the new president/CEO of the Chamber; Joaquin Razo, the Chamber’s new vice president and chief strategy officer; Marcus Marquez, chair of the Chamber board and partner with Stacia Dowdell of Brasswood Estate; and Ahren Trumble, a Chamber boardmember and co-owner of Sportago.

We came away with the impression that the Chamber is in a time of transition, with Carabba learning the ropes as the Chamber pivots away from political advocacy and gets back to the basics of member services.

Carabba, most recently a TV news reporter in Sacramento, was one of 200 applicants for Chamber CEO, according to Marquez. He said most were from out of state, and not a single person from the Napa Valley was seriously interested in the job.

Marquez said the board chose Carabba because of her background in digital marketing, her ideas on how to serve Chamber members.

She takes over a Chamber that’s facing significant challenges: Pressure from the community and the City Council (which has a $210,000 contract with the Chamber) to do more community programs, pressure from merchants to address the doldrums that have becalmed downtown retail businesses, and the challenge of maintaining the delicate balance between tourism and quality of life.

Carabba is focusing on serving Chamber members, particularly with social media training, and organizing more community events, including an improved Christmas celebration and decorations. Marquez mentioned tentative ideas about a community dinner on Railroad Avenue (a la Calistoga’s annual Harvest Table) and maybe a temporary ice skating rink. Celebrate St. Helena, set for March 16 (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hall Winery), is shaping up to be a wonderful event honoring the people, nonprofits and businesses that make our community strong.

Carabba and Razo pledge to check in personally with a few businesses every month, in conjunction with City Manager Mark Prestwich and Police Chief Bill Imboden. We’re glad to hear that, and we encourage them to pick up the pace. We’d love to see them interview all 250 member businesses within the next year.

They’ve also met with two or three landlords and plan to meet with more in hopes of figuring out why there are so many empty storefronts downtown (15, according to the Star’s recent count), and what can be done to address the problem. Marquez said the city’s investing in new downtown sidewalks, which is tentatively scheduled for 2020-2021, could generate the sort of buzz that’s necessary to attract good tenants.

We applaud those initiatives, and we like Carabba’s positive attitude, and we appreciate that the Chamber has a good relationship with the City Council and city staff. She was short on specifics, but that’s not entirely her fault — the Chamber’s 12-member board still has a tight leash on her, and since most of the Chamber’s July-June fiscal year budget has already been allocated and spent, she doesn’t have much wiggle room to fund new initiatives within the next few months.

As soon as the Chamber’s next budget is released, we’ll be eager to check back in with Chamber officials and learn more about the member services that are their number one priority, and about how the Chamber’s destination marketing is dovetailing with the efforts of the countywide Visit Napa Valley.

So far Carabba is heavily emphasizing social media like Facebook and Instagram. We were skeptical that social media is the best solution to reaching the very specific customer demographic that has helped St. Helena businesses thrive over the last 20 or so years, but Marquez made the case that even if social media posts aren’t reaching those folks, they are reaching the hotel concierges those folks rely on for shopping recommendations.

He could be right. Social media isn’t a panacea for what’s ailing our town, but it’s one tool in what we hope will be a diverse toolbox that will empower businesses to take charge of their own marketing.

The Chamber should invite members to answer another online survey, and assure them that their feedback will have tangible results. Keep meeting with landlords. Walk Main Street regularly and ask merchants what they need. Hold a few focus groups with residents, including those who have been critical of the Chamber in the past. Attend City Council meetings and keep strengthening that partnership with the council and city staff. Send merchants a 2018 calendar so that they can plan their promotions.

As Carabba settles in, the rest of us can help the Chamber set strategic goals and refine St. Helena’s somewhat vague brand as “Napa Valley’s Main Street.” Why should visitors brave Highway 29 traffic when there are so many new and exciting things to do in downtown Napa? The Chamber needs to find a convincing answer to that question that plays up the new and exciting things happening in St. Helena: Acacia House, The Charter Oak, the new Sportago, etc.

It’s a time of high hopes for the Chamber, but also high expectations. In order to fulfill them, the Chamber needs input from businesses and the community. That means you.

Email your ideas to amy@sthelena.com or call the Chamber at 963-4456.

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