Kathy Kopp is synonymous with the Platteville Regional Chamber, and for good reason.
Kopp has been its director for 22 of its 52 years of existence.
That’s an impressive term for someone who decided to take on the executive director position for one year to see if she liked it, in a period where the chamber’s future was in doubt.
“I was on the chamber board when we purchased this building” on West Business 151, said Kopp. “Through the process of a year or so when we started raising money, we moved, and we found out we were in financial problems. Our staff all quit because we had no money.
“We called an all-member meeting, and we had a corporate attorney who was going to walk us through the process of deincorporation.”
At that point, Lloyd Peters, the owner of Cable Car Travel, declared that deincorporation was not an option, putting down $1,000 and challenging other chamber members to do the same.
“I was between jobs in a way, so I was able to volunteer here a lot,” said Kopp. “When the director position came up, I was encouraged to apply, and I said I don’t have any experience, but maybe I can do it for a year or two. And it’s been 22 years.”
In those 22 years, the number of chamber members have more than doubled, from 150 to 320. As it turned out, the chamber position was ideal for Kopp.
“The chamber is such a positive thing, and it really fits my personality,” she said. “I’ve lived here all but six years of my life, I went to school here, and my kids went to school here; my grandkids go to school here. So when I get up in the morning, I don’t go to work. I don’t consider this work.
“I really can’t imagine anything else I’d rather be doing. I love challenges, and this is full of challenges.”
If Kopp wasn’t trained in business promotion work, she seems to have picked it up at home.
“I think I got it from my mom,” she said. “The reason I love the hospitality industry is that’s the type of home my mom made for us. She was always concerned about other people. She always made sure people were fed. If somebody was sick she’d make a cake or pie for them.”
The first priority of a chamber of commerce is promotion of business. Chambers include among its members competing businesses, and it could be said that all businesses compete with each other for employees.
“Competition is good,” said Kopp. “Picture Galena — how many people would go to Galena to spend the day if there was one restaurant and one unique gift store?
“You want to be a destination — that’s what success is. You’re giving more people more reason to come. And I think our business community is taking this to heart.”
One positive change Kopp sees is a better relationship between Platteville and UW–Platteville, which she credits to former chancellor David Markee, a student teacher at Platteville High School when she was a student and her English teacher as a sophomore.
“When I first started here, the university ended at Hickory Street, and there was a definite buffer,” she said.
The chamber was already involved with the Chicago Bears’ training camp at UW–Platteville when Kopp began as its director. Kopp called it a “phenomenal experience. I wish we could have captured it in a jar. There was so much excitement in July.”
The chamber’s most memorable single event of the 20th century was probably the Mickey Mouse parade July 4, 1998. The Wisconsin State Journal described Platteville’s being chosen as “the small-town public relations equivalent of winning the lottery.”
“It was incredible, but we pulled it off, and we had six weeks notice,” said Kopp. “We were notified in May, and the parade was on the fourth of July.”
Eleven years later, the Vietnam Moving Wall came to Platteville.
“It raised my sense of what a veteran was, and raised my sense of what a veteran felt when a community acknowledges them,” said Kopp. “Our community changed after that, and that’s one of the reasons that in three years almost to the day the veterans memorial in City Park was dedicated.”
The Moving Wall event included a parade from the Rollo Jamison museum west up Main Street to the wall on the UW–Platteville campus.
“They came from everywhere, all over the Midwest,” said Kopp.
The parade announcers were veterans Dick Bonin, at the museum, and Mike Myers, on Bonson Street. As the parade went by them, Bonin and Myers joined the parade, inviting veterans to fill in from the crowd. Non-walkers were transported in Galena’s trolley, except for Jack Tiedeman, who walked the entire parade route just after two knee replacements. Kopp remembers a seven-year-old girl encouraging her father to join the parade.
An estimated 50,000 visited the Moving Wall over the five days.
“It showed that there was true appreciation for veterans that just hadn’t come out,” said Kopp. “I’ve heard there were a number of veterans who came over in the middle of the night.”
The chamber’s focus has always included events. The biggest yearly event for the chamber now is Hometown Festival Week, eight days of events over two weekends.
The chamber’s focus has grown to include tourism. Platteville has been featured on a number of Discover Wisconsin programs, including a motorcycle-themed episode introduced in May. Platteville will be part of a 2015 program on the Great River Road.
In February 2009, Kopp got a call from state tourism secretary Kelli Trimble that the state was planning on closing the state Welcome Centers at major highway crossings of the state line, but the state was looking at a public–private business model to operate them. Trimble asked Kopp if the chamber would be interested in hosting a welcome center at the tourism office instead of its location at the U.S. 151/Wisconsin 11 rest area.
“That was another six weeks,” said Kopp. “When people come out of Dubuque, the first place they had to stop if they hit a red light is 151 and [Dane County] PD in Fitchburg.”
Platteville is the largest community between Dubuque and Madison. Kopp said more signage is needed on the 151 bypass, but added, “People are finding us” thanks to the Welcome Center.
The opening of the bypass and the conversion of the old 151 to Business 151 status in 2005 was another big event for the chamber.
“There’s always more that can be done, but the traffic count on Business 151 is at least as busy as it was when we went into this building in 1993,” said Kopp. “Traffic on Business 151 is unbelievable.”
Most issues chambers deal with have several weeks advance warning at least. One did not — the June 16 tornadoes.
“We were in reaction mode immediately,” said Kopp, because of “how it affected businesses, and it came so close, and the most impacted area was across the street. And it really backed up everything for the whole summer.”
“I can’t say enough about the community,” she said. “I’m just thankful it wasn’t worse.”
The chamber spearheaded the Platteville Tornado Relief Fund, to give aid to people and businesses that had tornado-related damage not covered by other means.
Kopp’s managing the fund resulted in her getting another responsibility — she is now part of the city’s disaster plan, tasked to “pull together fundraising for victims” of future disasters.
Which is ironic, because, she said, “My number one thing that I dislike is asking for money. That is something I do not enjoy doing.”
Kopp said the tornado was “a bit of a wakeup call” for businesses and other organizations in disaster preparation.
It may be hard to imagine the Platteville chamber without Kopp, but the chamber is making plans for that future by hiring an assistant director early next year, though she plans to stay at the chamber for “a few years yet. … My days at the chamber, I see the end on the horizon, but it’s not immediate.
“There’s really no one who knows everything I do, and that’s not a good thing.”
Kopp wants to “expand more of our events,” including “a bigger splash at the 4th of July” and a “bigger splash for Dairy Days.” She also wants to “help develop a five-star-rated marketing plan that will be a testimony to the world about what Platteville is about.
“I think we’re still struggling with who we are, and I want to fine-tune that … who and what are the people of Platteville, and who would want to live here.”
Kopp also believes Platteville needs to have a conference center, which it hasn’t had since the closing of the Governor Dodge Conference Center.
“We lose so much opportunity to other communities, whether it’s wedding receptions, conference, meetings, parties,” she said.
Kopp is enthusiastic about the potential of UNITE (Unified Neighbors Improving Their Environment), which was introduced at a Good Morning Platteville event in November.
“There’s a lot of work to be done with that,” she said. “I’m excited to be part of that whether I’m at the chamber or not.”