SAN JOSE — The San Jose Chamber of Commerce is about to scout for its third leader in three years — right when downtown San Jose is battling to escape an economic “doom loop.”
Derrick Seaver has unexpectedly resigned as the San Jose Chamber’s chief executive officer to take a teaching job at Berean Christian High School in Walnut Creek.
Seaver said in an interview with this news organization that he has “long had a passion and an interest to go into the classroom” and that the stars had finally aligned for him to pursue his dream of teaching.
Some observers believe Seaver has helped place the San Jose Chamber on firmer ground in the wake of a scandal over a chamber political ad with racist undertones that showed Black men engulfed in tear gas with the message that inquired “Do you really want to sign on to this?”
The ad and the scandal led to the ouster of then-CEO Matt Mahood in October 2020, followed by the hiring in April 2021 of Derrick Seaver as the new CEO.
During his tenure, Seaver took a back-to-basics approach through which the San Jose Chamber exited political advocacy and instead focused on promoting and supporting small businesses.
“Two years ago, Derrick (Seaver) stepped in to stabilize the business community during a tumultuous time,” San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan said in comments emailed to this news organization.
Still, the departure means that while the San Jose Chamber embarks on a quest to hire its third CEO in three years, downtown San Jose lacks one of the key voices and advocates for its future.
“The chamber needs to be rebuilt with a strong, bold and outspoken advocate for small business, which we are sorely lacking,” said James Salata, principal owner and executive of Garden City Construction.
Salata believes the San Jose Chamber of Commerce should return to political advocacy.
“The chamber Political Action Committee should be reconstituted and work to clean up the downtown, the city at large and support the mayor’s clean and safe agenda, which is for the benefit of San Jose’s citizens and small businesses,” Salata said.
The big challenge for the next chamber CEO might be to set a course to help downtown San Jose escape what some observers warn is a “doom loop” of a wobbly business base, homelessness, skyrocketing office vacancies, empty commercial spaces and eyesores such as blighted properties.
“The timing is really bad for San Jose and the Chamber,” said Bob Staedler, principal executive of Silicon Valley Synergy, a land-use consultancy. “San Jose needs to speak with one voice for economic development and the downtown. San Jose is going to lose time on these issues with someone not working on them full time.”
Staedler is also concerned about the turnover of chamber CEOs.
“The departure of Derrick Seaver is more bad news for San Jose,” Staedler said. “This is something that is not needed at this time. Having three leaders in three years shows a lack of stability.”
Salata is concerned that the majority of the San Jose City Council is more oriented toward organized labor interests and has shoved onto the back burner support for businesses in the Bay Area’s largest city.
“It appears there is more activism on the City Council than support for small businesses and the citizens of San Jose, as evidenced by the state of downtown, our freeways and the mental health crisis we see daily on our streets,” Salata said. “The council’s priorities are misguided.”
Staedler believes that economic gloom also haunts areas of San Jose beyond the downtown, which are issues the chamber should also address.
“It’s not just downtown San Jose, we also have economic challenges on the east side” of the city, Staedler said.
Seaver believes that his efforts to push the San Jose Chamber to focus more on business issues rather than political advocacy have helped to steady the organization.
“There was a lot of flux on the board, so many members had resigned and left the chamber when I took over,” Seaver said. “All of those factors made for a rough situation at that time. I feel confident we put the chamber in a better place than it was two years ago.”
San Jose’s mayor indicates that the next CEO pick could be crucial to bolster the city’s economic rebound.
“I have high hopes for whoever follows in his (Seaver’s) footsteps and look forward to working with them to ensure San Jose’s business climate is second to none,” Mahan said.