Steve Wilson vividly remembers the first time Coeur d’Alene felt like home.
He was sitting in a meeting room on the Cloud 9 floor of the old North Shore Motor Hotel on a rainy May day. Heavy clouds moved across the mountains. Wilson thought it was beautiful, a vastly different landscape from the sagebrush desert of North Dakota and southern Idaho, where he grew up.
Coeur d’Alene has been Wilson’s home for 36 years. At the end of the month, Wilson will retire after serving as CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce.
Consensus is Chamber music. For the past eight years Wilson has orchestrated that music, providing effective communication between education, business, government, nonprofit and environmental groups in the community.
“A chamber of commerce really is an organization of volunteers,” he said. “We really can’t get anything done without the consensus of volunteers, without the consensus of committees and the board of directors. My role has been to bring consensus and to orchestrate the various sections to produce the music.”
Heidi Rogers, chairman of the Chamber’s board of directors, put it this way: “I think it goes back to [Steve] being a quiet leader. He’s a great listener and being a great listener means he listens thoughtfully and asks good questions. I would say his legacy is being an individual that worked with a variety of people for the common good. He doesn’t need to be on a stage; he can be a quiet leader working for the good of our community.”
The Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce consists of 925 individual business organizations that represent over 25,000 people. It is the second largest in the state and serves as a guide for other communities in the region.
“One of the key roles of a chamber of commerce is to advocate for membership, advocate for policy, and [advocate] for a situation that is good for economic growth, stability, and job generation," Wilson said. "There are times when not 100% of the membership can agree on any particular policy. The most challenging part is being able to balance the general consensus of membership in a way that you can advocate effectively for policy that has a real impact.”
Chamber of Commerce Board member and Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios said, “Steve is not afraid to jump in and coordinate the discussions around controversial areas. He is truly a great leader.”
Over the past 20 years, 880 people have graduated from the Chamber’s two-year leadership program as students of local history, businesses, and regional industry. During Wilson’s tenure, the Chamber added an advanced leadership program and a youth leadership program.
“We brought forth a youth leadership program to try to connect young folks with the business community at an early age, to paint a path of volunteerism and community activism for their future,” Wilson said.
Wilson has been instrumental in the development of CDA 2030, the community’s visionary volunteer alliance working toward a brighter future for the city.
“It’s been a successful endeavor that has allowed individuals from the community to have tremendous input into the way that they see our great city moving forward into the next 15-20 years,” Wilson said.
Nicole Kahler, executive director of CDA 2030, said Wilson has contributed to many CDA 2030 successes including developing Opening Books, Opening Doors, a K-3 grade literacy initiative; implementing a soft skills curriculum for high school students; overseeing the performing arts feasibility study; managing the Health Corridor Urban Land Institute Technical Assistance Panel and Urban Renewal eligibility report; working on affordable quality early care and education (child care); and partnering with the City of Coeur d’Alene on the East Sherman master plan.
“Through the Chamber of Commerce and CDA 2030, Steve has made a big impact by acting as a community convener,” Kahler said. “He has strengthened relationships and fostered collaboration between community organizations, government, and citizens to support the achievements of many community-based goals.”
According to Rogers, the body of water near Chamber headquarters in downtown Coeur d’Alene has benefitted from Wilson’s diligence.
“He’s provided an amazing amount of leadership regarding Lake Coeur d’Alene,” Rogers said. “His work understanding the complexity of the quality of our lake water and understanding the importance of the quality to our community and our businesses.”
Wilson supports lake management initiatives and the Our Gem Symposium, a collaboration with the Idaho Conservation League.
Volcano opens doors
For someone so well suited for the job, Wilson sort of fell into it by accident.
He had spent 28 years working with the Hagadone Corporation and Best Western Plus Coeur d’Alene Inn and was taking some time off to golf and fish with his grandson.
“You know, hotels never close. There are no locks on the front door. I had come to a new chapter in my life that didn’t include the day-to-day operations of the hotel world,” Wilson said.
Then Skip Peterson, Darren Hayes and Heather Wichman approached Wilson. An opportunity had come up at the Chamber. Wilson served as interim CEO for several months. He loved the challenge, the opportunity to work with talented people — and that the Chamber closed for weekends and holidays. It was a job that brought his education and work experience full circle.
Wilson was born in Fargo, N.D. His family found its way to Idaho when DeLaval Dairy expanded and needed Wilson’s dad to cover sales throughout the Rocky Mountain West. The family landed in Boise, where Wilson attended Borah High School and later Boise State University. He graduated with an economics degree in 1974.
Wilson had always had a keen interest in business and history. Several dynamic professors, including Coeur d’Alene resident and owner of M & H Economic Consultants, Dr. John Mitchell, hooked Wilson on economics.
In May of 1980, Wilson was working as director of the Idaho Department of Tourism and Industrial Development when Mount St. Helens erupted. His boss had had a heart attack. As he tells it, Wilson was next in charge and got a phone call from Gov. John Evans.
“The governor said, ‘Wilson! I hear there’s been some problems up north. They say this volcano’s creating havoc with the tourism industry. Get your butt up there and find out what’s really going on.’”
So Wilson headed to Coeur d’Alene, where it quickly became apparent that the community wasn’t equipped to deal with the impact of Mount St. Helens. This fueled Wilson to help write and lobby for House Bill 111, the legislation that created the 2% hotel, motel, and campground tax and formed the Idaho Travel Council. Prior to that legislation, there wasn’t any real state funding for tourism in the 1980s. The biggest contributions came from the potato commission.
“They put Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack. That was probably the biggest thing that anybody ever did for tourism before we were able to get that [2%] tax and raise some money,” Wilson said. “Then the state legislature was able to put out beautiful ads and award-winning publications.”
It was during this process that Wilson met Jerry Jaeger, president of the Hagadone Corporation’s hospitality division and North Idaho’s representative on the first Travel Council. Wilson developed a working relationship with Jaeger, and when the company needed a sales and marketing director for their new project, they reached out to him. He eventually became general manager of The Coeur d’Alene Resort and later worked as the general manager of the Best Western Plus Coeur d’Alene Inn.
“He worked in one of the greatest organizations in our community. That is why he knew so much about business,” Rogers said about Wilson’s time with The Hagadone Corp.
Wilson served a four-year term on the Idaho Travel Council board. It gave him the opportunity to understand the diversity and scope of tourism industry in North Idaho.
“I learned about the importance of that industry to a great number of people. Before then I was tuned into the Hagadone Corporation. On the board I worked with and learned about many small businesses,” Wilson said.
Steve Wilson is retiring after eight years of serving the Coeur d’Alene community as the CEO of the Chamber of Commerce. But he is also retiring after working tirelessly to benefit commerce and tourism in the state of Idaho for over 40 years.
Officially, Derrell Hartwick is stepping into Wilson’s role as Chamber CEO today. Wilson’s advice?
“He’s a sharp young guy coming in with lots of energy. I think it’s critical that you listen to the members, that you get a good pulse for the community. There are some wise people in this community that will provide guidance and direction.”