IC Chamber sets the stage for a year of change

Incoming Board Chair Shawn Meaney said the Iowa City Chamber is in for a “year of reinvention” as part of the organization’s Feb. 28 dinner. PHOTO IC CHAMBER


By Adam Moore

CORALVILLE—The Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce hasn’t been one to sit still in recent years, but it appears set to move even faster in 2019.

Speaking at the organization’s annual dinner, held Feb. 28 at the Coralville Marriott, chamber leaders promised a “year of reinvention” that could include a new brand (possibly), a new space (definitely) and an ambitious goal for engaging members in the work of teaching the workforce of the future.

“We will be establishing a new vision and strategic plan for the chamber using a framework from the Entrepreneurial Operating System … imagining what a next-generation chamber can look like, and the ways in which we can continue to create real value for our customers,” incoming Board Chair Shawn Meaney told the roughly 600 people in attendance.

Chamber leaders will be “taking a hard look at what we offer,” Mr. Meaney added, noting that it may mean ceasing some programs to make room for “new and even better services.”

That isn’t necessarily news, as the chamber has been wrestling with its identity for the better part of two years, and even looked — unsuccessfully — at merging with the Iowa City Area Development Group in 2018 as part of an initiative code-named Project Penguin. What is notable, however, is how quickly that change will take shape in the coming year.

The first sign of the chamber’s evolution could come as soon as this month, as chamber leaders settle on a new location for the organization, long housed just across the street from Iowa City City Hall on the corner of Washington and Gilbert streets.

While leaders had originally planned to relocate in the fall of 2020, the building’s heating system is failing, pushing the landlord to accelerate renovation plans — and the chamber to bump up its relocation timeline, according to President and CEO Kim Casko.

Asked about possible locations, she acknowledged there are “some strong preferences to keep us downtown,” but said that the chamber’s work supporting all of Johnson County may take it elsewhere, whether that means setting up shop at nearby MERGE or looking to a more unconventional solution.

“Ultimately, we would like something that meshes with our team, that matches our style and who we want to be. Part of me thinks we need to have an RV,” Ms. Casko joked. “We need to be omnipresent, so part of my thought is, do we have a headquarters somewhere, but set up hubs in other communities? Do we need to offer space as a physical service, or do we need to be out and about visiting with our members?”

The Iowa City Chamber’s search for a new home is occurring in tandem with its search for a new identity. Organizational leaders will participate in a workshop based around the Entrepreneurial Operating System later this month aimed at helping establish a new vision, mission and multi-year targets. Ms. Casko said she expects that process to take up the first half of the year, but noted that the system is an “iterative process … so I’m hesitant to say when it will be done.” It may also not result in a new name or brand, she added, but it will be a refresh nonetheless.

“It’s almost like form follows function — once we kind of work through that, we can kind of crystallize around that. We’re excited to get through that process.”

Indeed, the choice of Nick Westergaard, chief strategist at Brand Driven Digital and a local expert on all things branding, as the annual dinner’s keynote felt like an excuse to host a branding bootcamp specifically for chamber leaders. The author of “Get Scrappy” and “Brand Now” spent his time discussing the seven dynamics of success­ful brand building, and how to harness a company’s “concentric circles of commu­nity” in a presentation that was alternately thought-provoking and emotional.

“It’s important as brands to think about how you appeal to the head and the heart, whether that’s through simplicity, flexibility, or humor,” Mr. Westergaard said. “What is it that you’re really doing for those you serve?”

Education focus

Ms. Casko invited Mark Nolte, president of the ICAD Group, to the stage early in the night to ask attendees to consider “what would it look like if the Iowa City area had the most innovative approach to ed­ucation in the nation,” and launch a new shared initiative to take the community’s education ecosystem “to the next level.”

He called for area schools to conduct surveys of students and teachers to under­stand what is working and where change is needed, and to work with the business community to create a “profile of a learn­er,” to set expectations about what skills will be needed among the next generation of workers and citizens.

Ms. Casko and Mr. Nolte also challenged member businesses to better engage with ICR Iowa’s goal of creating 650 new high school job shadow and internship oppor­tunities by the end of 2020, noting that only eight member businesses are current­ly working with the region’s work-based learning organization, Workplace Learning Connection, to do so. They hope to increase that number to 100 by the end of 2020.

Other business

• Outgoing Board Chair Tim Krumm provided an update on the chamber’s work in 2018, noting the organization secured 76 new businesses and held 175 events, attracting more than 6,500 peo­ple. The chamber also partnered with the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance to create an identical, unified state and feder­al legislative agenda to advocate as a unit with policy makers.

• Shawn Meaney was introduced as new board chair for 2019. Mr. Meaney is a business transformation leadership con­sultant who previously served as CEO and COO of JM Swank in North Liberty.