MORTON — Even the wet weather couldn't dampen Paul Stewart's spirit when more than 90 vintage cars sputtered though Packwood earlier this month.
"It went great even with all the rain, and that I caught the flu that night," Stewart said.
Packwood was the last pit stop for the Great Race, a cross-country trek of antique cars, sponsored by the Army National Guard, that began in Washington, D.C., and ended in Tacoma.
Stewart, the executive director of the newly formed East Lewis County Chamber of Commerce, lobbied for the race to stop in Packwood so that the East End community could compete with 40 other en route cities for the race's Great American City Award.
However, only one local business in Packwood was willing to support the event.
The business community's tepid reception of the race, according to Stewart, is an example of the resistance the director, a relative newcomer to the East End, has experienced in his efforts to develop the chamber.
"It was the last pit stop of a national event. It really boggles my mind," he said, concerning the lack of local sponsorship.
Stewart formed the East Lewis County Chamber of Commerce in February because of a need he saw for inclusiveness in the business community.
"I had attempted to start a Packwood-Randle Chamber of Commerce, but I found that Packwood businesses didn't want to work with Randle and vice versa," he said. "But this mentality of not working with each other really has to stop."
A native of New Orleans, Stewart moved to Packwood in 2003 to be closer to the landscape that reminded him of the 10 years he lived in Europe, serving in the U.S. Army.
Just prior to moving to Lewis County, Stewart lived in Lynnwood, and served on the South Snohomish Chamber of Commerce's governmental affairs committee for nearly three years.
Today, in addition to his work with the chamber, Stewart teaches a technology course part-time at a middle school in Seattle, and runs an Internet consulting business from his home.
However, since February, most of his time has been spent developing momentum for the chamber. Currently, 49 East End businesses, including DeGoede's Bulb Farm and the White Pass Ski Resort, have become chamber members.
Val Anderson of the Painted Door Antiques in Packwood joined the chamber last month. She said she was impressed by how Stewart handled the Great Race.
"I like the way he thinks and the direction he's going. That's why I joined," she said.
Kathy Fuller, owner of Fischer's Market in Randle, was attracted to Stewart's appeal to inclusiveness.
"I think this area needs to work together to be effective," she said. "No one who's in business has time to devote the resources needed to do that alone."
Stewart has focused one of the chamber's goals on strengthening East Lewis County's schools, which are facing declining enrollment.
"For economic development, there has to be a way to keep young families here," he said. "Without schools in the community, you're looking at genocide."
According to Stewart, a potential work force is one of the first factors businesses assess before moving into an area.
"If it's all retirees, most industries will say, 'This isn't a fit for us,' " he said.
The chamber will host an education forum in Morton on October 17, led by Terry Bergeson, Washington's superintendent of public instruction. Key Bank of Morton will sponsor the event.
"All of us employees here have children that go to either school district. It's something that's near and dear to our heart," explained the bank's branch manager, April Toups.
According to Toups, while Key Bank is already a member of the Morton Chamber of Commerce, the financial institution also joined the East Lewis County Chamber to further its reach.
"We serve from Packwood all the way to Cinebar. That's our customer base," Toups said.
And expanding a business's exposure is the chamber's ultimate goal.
"I'm not speaking rocket science. I'm doing all I can to assist the community to being aggressive and innovative," Stewart said. "They have the power to control their own area, but if they don't, investors will come in and dictate what it will be."
Robin McGinnis covers business issues for The Chronicle. She may be reached at 807-8231, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Upcoming events for the East Lewis County Chamber of Commerce
Aug. 11 — 6:30 p.m. Larry J. King, attorney and retired district court judge in Mason County, will address employment law and nonviolent communication between Americans and Muslims of the Middle East.
Sept. 15 — 6 p.m. The chamber will host a Methamphetamine Awareness Community Forum with Sgt. David F. Knies of the Washington State Patrol and other guests.
Oct. 17 — 6 p.m. Terry Bergeson, the superintendent of public instruction for Washington, will lead the first East Lewis County Education Forum.
All events listed will be held at the Bob Lyle Community Center in Morton. Visit www.eastlewiscountychamber.com for details.