San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce President Dave Garth said he will retire in July, leaving behind what many call a legacy of community advocacy and a testament to drive and endurance.
Garth, 64, has led the chamber for 38 years, shepherding it from what some say was a small, flailing organization to a permanent component of San Luis Obispo County.
Under his leadership the chamber grew from 250 members and a budget of less than $30,000 to an organization with more than 1,400 members and a $1.5 million budget.
Garth, a former journalist, chuckles when asked if he ever envisioned staying in the post for so long, admitting his career at the chamber started out simply with the need for a job and then gradually grew into a passion he didn’t know he had.
“I really thought I would only be at the chamber for a year,” Garth said. “After 10 years, they had a little roast for me, and it was almost like a retirement because no one had ever stayed there that long. That was 28 years ago.”
Garth is one of the longest-standing chamber presidents in the western United States, according to Dave Kilby, president of the Western Association of Chamber Executives.
Garth announced his retirement plans Saturday night at the Chamber of Commerce’s awards and installation annual dinner, having told the chamber’s board of directors earlier in the week.
A selection committee of six past chairs of the chamber’s board will meet at the end of the month to define a recruitment process, chamber board Chairman Michael Gunther said.
The position will be advertised locally and nationally with the intention of hiring Garth’s replacement by June.
The decision to retire, Garth said, was a combination of the desire to do more in his personal life and a long-standing promise to himself that he would step down while he still loved the job.
“I always wanted to go out while I felt like I was still contributing,” Garth said. “I’ve had several friends in the past year that have died or been incapacitated in some way, and I realized that if I want to do other things, there is no guarantee that I will have that much time to do that.”
Garth said he would step down at ease knowing that the chamber and the city are in a good place despite the economic challenges facing communities statewide.
“We live in a place where the sense of community is strong, and that is one of the main fundamentals that make people happy,” Garth said. “Here, people know where they live and they care about it — they feel connected. And they are willing to volunteer because of it.”
That said, Garth admits there are still things the city needs in order to flourish, such as more head-of-household jobs.
He said he has confidence that those things will be accomplished.
Ken Hampian, former San Luis Obispo city manager and 20-year employee of the city, said, “Dave and I used to accuse each other of being overly protective of our organizations.
“But that is what you do when you love your organization like it’s your baby,” he added. “The chamber was definitely Dave’s baby, and it grew up under him to become one of the smartest, most productive chambers anywhere.”
Kilby, who has known Garth for 33 years, said he is known throughout California by other chamber executives as someone willing to be innovative and is often mimicked in business practices by other chambers.
“A lot of individuals in all walks of life have a mind-set that they want to leave things better when they leave then when they got there,” Kilby said. “Dave has certainly tried to do that in San Luis Obispo.”
“He has taken that mission to San Luis Obispo County, statewide and beyond in the industry to make others better and to make the chamber industry better,” Kilby added.
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.