Chamber takes reins at World Trade Center Tacoma

The Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce took over management of the World Trade Center Tacoma on Tuesday, as the trade center’s board assesses the future of the nonprofit.

Gary Brackett, the chamber’s former business and political manager, is coming out of retirement to serve as the trade center’s interim executive director, chamber President and CEO Tom Pierson said.

Former trade center President and CEO Louise Tieman is assisting with the transition, after “the board of directors decided to move in a different direction,” said trade center board chairman Dale King.

In recent months, Tieman has spoken to the Port of Tacoma about financial problems at the trade center. The port holds the license to the trade center, and its commissioners demanded more accountability and financial oversight.

Finances were a little better in January and February, Tieman said, “but not enough to really see the path to financial health. I have nothing but positive feelings for the World Trade Center and hope it thrives under this new direction.”

Tieman worked for the trade center for a little over two and a half years. Tieman earned $95,000 per year, but took a voluntary salary reduction of $1,000 per month starting January 2016, King said.

The trade center is behind on rent by about a year for the space it shares with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce, said Pierson. For now, the chamber will manage the trade center, its clients, and seven interns who depend on their experience with the program to graduate from college.

The chamber will hire an accountant to comb through the trade center’s finances, which Pierson said is customary when taking over the management of a new organization.

“I’ve known Louise for a long time and think highly of her,” Pierson said.

Records show the last time the World Trade Center Tacoma filed its nonprofit paperwork, called a 990, with the Internal Revenue Service was in 2013. King and Pierson confirmed the more recent forms have not been found and they are looking into whether forms were prepared and not filed.

The chamber’s review of World Trade Center Tacoma could last up to two months. The review will include reevaluating the trade center’s business plan and whether another organization will manage it, Pierson said.

Part of the trade center’s financial woes can be traced back to 2013, when the organization took a six-month break from soliciting sponsorships and memberships while the board reevaluated the trade center’s mission and services, King said.

“We’ve been trying to recover from that ever since,” King said.

The trade center helps local businesses find international markets for their products and services. Apples and beef from Eastern Washington can be shipped around the globe — and buyers want those products. Uniting the buyers and sellers is where the trade center comes in.

World Trade Center Tacoma is also the only “full service” trade center in the Northwest, Pierson said, meaning the center helps businesses make international trade deals. Many other centers around the world only help businesses attend trade missions, or host seminars and host networking events.

“You’re helping some really small businesses get into (international trade) and helping them understand the export business,” Pierson said.

Businesses use the trade center to sell their products in other countries. Tieman said the trade center then takes a commission from the sale of those goods.

But when deals fall through, the trade center doesn’t get a commission.

Pierson said he would like to move to a “fee for service” model where businesses needing trade expertise pay by the hour, which he said other chambers of commerce have had success with.

The trade center also supports trade missions and has a contract employee, shared with the city of Tacoma, to manage relationships with investors from China. Last year the trade center also earned a $1.5 million Department of Commerce grant to open the city’s Minority Business Development Agency Business Center with the city of Tacoma. Those contractual agreements will continue, King said.

An upcoming trade mission to China in May remains on schedule, Pierson said.

The Port of Tacoma commission will hear about changes to the trade center management structure at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at the Fabulich Center, 3600 Port of Tacoma Road.

Pierson said the trade center’s next event, “Building global business: Culture matters” will continue as planned, at 4 p.m., Wednesday, March 15 at the World Trade Center Tacoma offices, 950 Pacific Ave., Suite 310.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports