The Bend Chamber of Commerce elected a marijuana business owner to the board of directors in October, one of the first, if not the first, in Oregon to do so.
Bend chamber board member Hunter Neubauer is co-owner of Oregrown, which owns an 84-acre farm and processing plant near Tumalo and a retail shop on NW Wall Street in Bend. Neubauer, 34, served a one-year term this year, appointed in 2016 by board Chairman Rob Moore, president and co-founder of Arbor Mortgage in Bend.
Bend chamber president Katy Brooks said Neubauer was nominated for a term in 2018 and recommended by a chamber subcommittee for the ballot. He was elected Oct. 24, along with Lisa Hale of Grace Bio Labs, Alan Dietrich of Bendistillery, Travis Ulrich of Webfoot Painting and Coby Horton of U.S. Bank. The election is mostly a consensus-gathering measure; only five nominees are put forward and all five rise to board seats.
Neubauer “is fully engaged in the community in many, many ways,” Brooks said. “He’s a savvy advocate at the state level as well as the local level. He understands the business community as a whole.”
A search of chamber of commerce websites in Oregon found few cannabis businesses as members and none as board members.
Neubauer declined to comment for this story. An outspoken advocate for legal cannabis, he served on the Recreational Marijuana Rules Advisory Committee, a group formed by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to help draw up regulations for legalized marijuana. He appeared in February before the state House Revenue Committee to oppose an increase on the local marijuana sales tax on behalf of the Oregon Cannabis Association. He also took part in discussions before the Deschutes County Commission and served on a county advisory panel on marijuana and land-use regulation.
Neither Brooks nor Moore said they knew of any resistance to Neubauer becoming a chamber board member.
“No doubt there are still many opinions about his involvement,” Brooks said. “At the end of the day, the board decided that this is a legal industry, this is a person dedicated to making the community better as a business person and it also provided an opportunity to see an industry that none of us has been exposed to.”
Chamber of commerce brings to mind a conservative organization populated by bankers, real estate agents and Main Street business owners. But the Bend chamber “is getting progressive,” said commercial real estate broker Brian Fratzke, a past board chairman. Diversity of viewpoints and experience “is something we really strive for” on the board.
Neubauer, he said, “is an asset,” and, for his age, “a wise thinker.”
Because marijuana is still illegal under federal law, many bankers and real estate professionals are averse to working on behalf of cannabis businesses. Fratzke is one, although if the federal government lifted its prohibition, he said, he’d willingly work with that sector. Because recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, Fratzke said, he has no problem with a marijuana business owner on the chamber board.
“There are people in our community who are not supportive of that industry,” he said, “but it’s a legitimate industry.”
Jeremy Kwit, president of Substance, a retailer formerly known as Bloom Well, said his was the first marijuana business in Bend to join the chamber of commerce. He said Neubauer’s position with the chamber signals growing social acceptance of cannabis.
“I think it’s beyond the legalization of the business,” Kwit said. “It shows more the acceptance and normalization of the industry as a whole.”
Marijuana has become an economic issue, he said. Marijuana business owners employ building contractors, tradesmen and women, accountants, lawyers and security experts, among others, and generated more than a half-million dollars in tax revenue for the city this year. Cannabis on that score deserves a seat at the table, Kwit said.
Chamber membership is a real benefit, not a status marker, he wrote in an email Friday. “We are able to more affordably provide health and dental insurance to our 27 employees. In 2018 we will pay 100 percent of our employees’ health insurance. The Bend Chamber is able to provide ‘large group’ rates to small employers like us, making insurance coverage possible.”
Brooks, the chamber president, said the chamber advocates before local and state governments for the business community and serves as a leadership development organization. For the chamber, Neubauer serves as a liaison for the Young Professionals Network, a group of 21-40 year olds who meet monthly for panel discussions and socializing. Oregrown also sponsors the program.
Neubauer is largely alone as a figure from a marijuana business in a leadership position in an Oregon chamber of commerce. Even municipalities where cannabis retailers number in the double digits have few, if any, as chamber members. Bend has 21 recreational marijuana dispensaries, according to the OLCC Recreational Marijuana Program. Sixty-four marijuana business license holders are located in Deschutes County, including the Bend retail dispensaries.
In Eugene, where 49 licensed retailers are located, five are listed on the chamber of commerce website as members; Corvallis has nine retail shops but none appear to be chamber members based on a website search.
Portland has 150 cannabis dispensaries, although none appear on a member search of the Portland Business Alliance website. No cannabis business owners are among the 66 members of the board of directors. More than 300 marijuana license holders, including growers, processors, wholesalers, testing labs and retailers, are located in Multnomah County.
Sandra McDonough, president and CEO of Portland Business Alliance, in an email Thursday, wrote: “We do have members who are in the cannabis business, and we have no specific standards for these businesses. As long as they are legally established businesses, as the law allows, we would have no reason to treat them differently from any of our other 1,900 members.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7815, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify that Neubauer is an Oregrown co-owner.