The Westport/Grayland Chamber of Commerce resides in a perky, white building where Montesano Street splits off from Highway 105. On the roof, a big sign featuring a lighthouse gives directions and welcomes tourists to the South Beach.
The South Beach area includes the continuous 18 miles of sandy beaches south of the Grays Harbor bay area. Starting at Ocosta on the inside of the bay, the area expands north to Westport and then south again on the ocean side to Grayland, ending at Tokeland in Pacific County.
Each year, friendly Executive Director Leslie Eichner greets thousands of visitors. She is assisted either by weekend staffer Gerry Ortiz or two-day-per-week volunteer Dawn Vandeveur. Kelci Williams keeps the books part-time. The team provides referrals to restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, charter fishing companies and “anything under the sun.”
“We make people aware of the natural beauty of this place,” Eichner says. “The beach, the pretty historic harbor – you can just walk out and watch seals or pelicans and see the Olympic Mountains.” They also hand out a lot of maps.
The early season begins with salmon fishing in June, then coincides with school summer vacations and ends with traveling seniors who enjoy a warm day and cranberry harvest in October.
To pull the business community together and to promote the area to tourists and residents alike, a group of Westport business people founded a chamber of commerce in 1953. It was incorporated May 26, 1956, now including Grayland, with the objective to “develop, encourage, promote and protect the commercial, professional, financial, and general business interest of the Westport/Grayland area.”
It has been a struggle to maintain a chamber in such a small community. The original Chamber was located in a tiny building at the marina. Thirty years ago, the Grays Harbor PUD was asked to establish a pay station at the conveniently located building on Montesano Street. A reenergized board negotiated a contract with the PUD to staff the pay station. The Chamber of Commerce moved in, serving the PUD along with the community. This contract formed a substantial contribution to the Chambers’ income – an ingenious business solution. “The pay station formed one leg of what we call our three-legged stool,” says Eichner. “The other two legs consist of membership fees and a contribution from the City of Westport to run the visitor information center.” Today the chamber has 107 members, mostly small businesses from Tokeland, Grayland and Westport with a few members from Aberdeen.
A big part of Eichner’s work is event planning. The Chamber sponsors four major annual community events: World Class Crab Races, Derby and Crab Feed in April, Seafood Festival and Craft Show in early September, followed by the 30 Miles of Junque garage sale in mid-September and Cranberry Festival in October. In addition, Eichner is in charge of a spring auction and gala to raise funds for the Chamber. For over 30 years, a contingent from the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association from Puyallup has been coming every September as Operation Shore Patrol to clean the beaches. The chamber feeds the group chili and hot dogs with cake donated by the Shop’n Kart Bakery.
Eichner has worked for the Chamber for 24 years, including devoting about half of her time for 21 years to the PUD. Three years ago, in 2013, the PUD decided to close all its small satellite stations. The loss of this income made a huge dent in the Chamber’s budget.
“Fortunately the community is very giving,” Eichner marvels. “For the Seafood Festival, Shop’n Kart donates nine cases of corn on the cob, Washington Crab contributes Dover sole and 100 pounds shrimp for cocktails, Ocean Companies gives salmon, Harbor Wholesale shares groceries, Harbor Pacific donates Pepsi and local restaurants contribute salad.” She is thankful for the community support that raises funds for the Chamber’s advertising and operational costs.
The Chamber also helps with other area festivals through advertising, loaning tables and volunteering. Beyond the South Beach, they work with Grays Harbor Tourism. Eichner just staffed a booth for the County at the recent Grays Harbor County Fair in sweltering 91 degree heat. She likes to give back since Grays Harbor Tourism supports the Cranberry Festival with funds from lodging tax dollars. Events within Westport city limits are funding through City of Westport lodging tax dollars.
Eichner reports that the South Beach community agrees on one big plan for the future – Westport needs an event center. The rain currently forces events like the Crab Races to rent a tent for $5,000 per weekend. Legal requirements make ownership of a tent prohibitive, plus the tent is required to be set up by licensed personnel. It needs a large dry storage place plus a very large place to dry out when taken down. It needs to be sprayed with fire retardant. Considering all this, Eichner hopes that supporters will come forward and an event center for Westport will become a reality in the near future.
To learn more about visiting Westport, Grayland, Tokeland and the South Beach area, call 360-268-9422 or 800-345-6223. Stop by at 2985 South Montesano Street in Westport. You can find the Westport/Grayland Chamber of Commerce online and on Facebook.
The chamber office is open seven days a week at 10:00 a.m. Closing times vary from 3:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. depending on events and clam digs.