Is SLO only for college students and retirees? New Chamber CEO is trying to prevent that

Chamber CEO shares insights on new job

SLO Chamber CEO/President Jim Dantona talks about economic challenges and the chamber's role. Dantona started his new position after working as the chief of staff to Los Angeles Councilwoman Nury Martinez.
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SLO Chamber CEO/President Jim Dantona talks about economic challenges and the chamber's role. Dantona started his new position after working as the chief of staff to Los Angeles Councilwoman Nury Martinez.

It wasn’t all that long ago when Jim Dantona aspired to be a politician.

He briefly pursued a state Senate seat in District 27, covering parts of Ventura and Los Angeles counties.

But the spotlight of politics — at times vitriolic and personal, he says — wasn’t for him.

He retreated to a role he felt more comfortable in — behind the scenes as a political aide, working as the chief of staff for Los Angeles Councilwoman Nury Martinez.

Now, he has a bit more of a public role these days, now in his fifth month as San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce’s CEO/president, where he’s able to blend his knowledge of how politics work with advocacy for the business community.

The organization represents 1,400 members, mostly small businesses in SLO.

“The problems of L.A. seem so big,” said Dantona the nonprofit’s third leader in the past 45 years. “Here, they seem manageable at least.”

Transitioning from L.A. to SLO

Part of Dantona’s job in Los Angeles was to help stimulate the economy and improve people’s lives in a city that has 50,000 homeless people, economic disparities, congested traffic, massive infrastructure systems and crime — along with a vibrant entertainment, restaurant, business and arts scene.

Dantona’s key SLO priorities are a bit more targeted: The impact of Diablo Canyon’s closure and finding its economic replacement, helping to provide more housing affordability while solving infrastructure strains, adjusting a changing retail landscape and the problems of homelessness.

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is due to close by 2025. Joe Johnston

SLO has a homeless population of more than 400, according to city data.

“There are great opportunities to rethink how we’re doing all of those things,” Dantona said. “My job is to be a convener and to try to get people from different perspectives in the same room, who might not otherwise talk to each other, and help drive the ideas you want to promote.”

Housing, transportation and climate action

Studies have shown that if $2 to $4 million per year in county funding is available for affordable housing, it can make a true difference in the community, Dantona said.

Collaborations between nonprofit housing representatives, supervisors John Peschong and Bruce Gibson, and the Home Builders Association of the Central Coast are underway to help address some of those issues — and Dantona is helping to facilitate those discussions.

Dantona was pleased to see county supervisors vote unanimously in March in favor of an overhaul of the inclusionary housing ordinance, generating an estimated $1 million per year for affordable developments — a first step toward addressing a sizable funding gap for such projects.

Another example of a potential improvements to regional transportation could be adding new bus routes and times to make sure workers get to their jobs on time.

Automated Parking037
Parked cars line Chorro Street in downtown San Luis Obispo. Joe Johnston

“For SLO to be successful, we have to collaborate, and think about the collective benefits of the entire region,” Dantona said. “We learned, for example, from meeting with (the nonprofit tourism-related organization) Visit SLO Cal that hotel workers start their shifts at 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. But there’s no bus that arrives by then. That could potentially be achieved if we can bring the right groups together.”

Additionally, the city of SLO’s climate action initiatives along with the pending closure of Diablo Canyon, have opened the door to rethink the relationship between the business community and green industry.

“One of the missions of our economic vision is environmental stewardship,” Dantona said. “I don’t know how many chambers of commerce around the country would adopt that goal as a key to business success.”

Building relationships with the community

Dantona’s job involves hearing from members and meeting regularly with a board composed of 21 local business and community leaders — along with members of the San Luis Obispo City Council and county Board of Supervisors.

“From what I’ve seen so far, local elected officials truly care about what’s for the community, and not making it about themselves and their egos, which is a personality you do see at various levels of politics,” Dantona said.

Ermina Karim, SLO Chamber of Commerce’s previous CEO.

Ermina Karim, the chamber’s last president, told The Tribune that the challenge for Dantona and the chamber moving forward will be to address one key question: “How does our place continue to evolve so more people have an opportunity to make a life here and the 30-to-50 year-old can really see themselves here?”

Along with chambers of commerce throughout the Central Coast, Dantona will work with the newly created HourGlass Project to help create quality jobs on the Central Coast.

“Job creation will help create choice and provide a way to stay here, so that we don’t shift to a community that’s just young people and old people,” Karim said.

Prior to Karim’s seven years as CEO/president, Dave Garth served at the helm for 38 years; Dantona has consulted regularly with both.

“Jim is a quick study, very sharp and extremely likable,” said Chamber board member Clint Pearce. “I have faith that whatever challenges we face, Jim will be leading a high functioning team that will solve these challenges.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.