This article was originally published in the Press-Citizen (Iowa City) on June 3, 2020
With her 800 business members struggling to stay profitable, CEO Kim Casko doesn’t dwell much on the internal headaches the pandemic has presented her Iowa City Area Business Partnership.
Her focus today is on what her organization can do to help safely restore a brutalized local business climate. And yet, it’s clear 2020 will not be remembered as the banner year anticipated by the former Chamber of Commerce here.
“We were on a roll,” she laments. “The economy was good, our team was stable and we were enjoying an uptick in membership.”
Plus during the annual banquet in February to kick off the new year, she and her leadership revealed the results of an extensive rebranding effort. They shed the Chamber moniker and proudly announced a new name, a new logo and a fresh strategy to continue the organization’s 84-year legacy of representing the Iowa City business community.
Then just a month later, local businesses were locked up tight, shoppers were hunkered down at home and the Business Partnership switched to emergency mode to battle an economic tsunami.
“It was so tough to see the pain and suffering of businesses downtown and throughout the area,” she told me. “It wasn’t like the flood, where you had only certain areas affected. This is so broad and so deep.”
Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings quickly replaced face-to-face contact with leaders, committees and staff as the Business Partnership’s new offices at the MERGE co-working space downtown closed and staff was sent to work at home. Phone calls and emails to assist members individually with resource information, business strategy tips and emotional support replaced the usual personal in-store visits.
“We ramped up our communication across the board,” said Casko.
That included informative online videos and newsletters, plus a flurry of surveys to find out exactly how members were impacted and how the Partnership could help.
“It has almost been a survey-palooza,” said Casko, as her group worked with other agencies to gather data. “We needed to fill the gaps and understand our members’ needs to be effective.”
There were some payoffs.
“A struggling restaurant/coffee shop told us they were going to have to drop their membership,” she said. “We were able to help them get a Small Business Relief Grant from the state. They thanked us and stayed a member, which was heartwarming to our staff.”
Casko says possibly the most effective action came early in the crisis. The Business Partnership helped launch Project Better Together along with the Iowa City Area Development Group, Think Iowa City and the Iowa City Downtown District.
A unified front was needed to spearhead a total community-wide recovery effort quickly, effectively and without duplication of effort, she said. The Project Better Together group is designed to serve as a strategic planning engine for recovery and beyond. Its new website has become a clearinghouse for information ranging from the myriad of state and federal business assistance programs to virus protection regulations to the direct promotion of local businesses.
New membership recruitment has halted, but Casko says a few new members have joined anyway. Nearly 70% of existing members had paid their dues early in the year before the pandemic, but maintaining income during the second half of this calendar year could be a struggle.
“Some Chambers are really hurting and have shut their doors around the country,” she said. “We’re bracing for the second half of this year. It could be rough.”
But the work goes on.
Casko will host a webinar on June 9 titled “Navigating This Crucible Moment,” where she will discuss pandemic issues with leaders from across the community.
Applications for the Business Partnership’s popular Community Leadership Program are open until June 15. It’s the 30th year offering this course, which includes 10 monthly sessions. The CEO is hoping for another full class of 24, in spite of the pandemic restrictions which will need to be in place.
Ambassador activities, business referral programs and many other projects as still in place in one form or another. Plans are still underway to expand the gift card program county-wide, along with a revitalized shop-local campaign.
Bottom line? The former Chamber plans to survive and help its members do the same.
“This massive strain on business impacts our Chamber directly,” Casko said, “but we’re working hard to be the voice of business recovery, and we’re optimistic toward a future that is still unknown.”
For more information, check out these websites: Iowa City Area Business Partnership at www.iowacityarea.com and Project Better Together at www.icareatogether.com