The Platteville Area Chamber of Commerce will celebrate its 50th anniversary at its annual dinner at UW–Platteville Saturday.
But the concept of business groups contributing to Platteville goes well beyond 1963, when the Platteville chamber was formed.
Research for the chamber’s 50 years goes farther than 50 years, to the Platteville Business Association, an organization that formed about a century ago.
“It was always the business community that rallied together,” said Kathy Kopp, the chamber’s executive director. “So many things have happened because of the business community. A healthy community is as healthy as its businesses are. And that’s what we take as our goal — to help them thrive.”
The chamber has been involved in nearly every major event in Platteville for decades — the Chicago Bears’ training camp at UW–Platteville between 1984 and 2001, the Disney parade in 1998, the Vietnam Moving Wall visit in 2009, the Alice in Dairyland finals in May 2012, and the Veterans Honor Roll in 2012. The chamber started Dairy Days and the Historic Re-Enactment.
Kopp has been the executive director of the chamber for 20 of those 50 years.
“We are an organization that promotes its membership member-to-member and to the community,” said Kopp. “We’re able to do a lot more promotion because we’re a band of brothers, so to speak.”
Chamber dues pay for business development, retail promotion, community events, and interactive partnering with regional groups. “It’s sort of like we’re information central,” said Kopp. “We’re usually the first location that business prospects contact to get business information, community information, demographic information, whatever.”
The former co-owner of Burbach Engineering didn’t expect to have a career in business promotion.
“I was on the board for a couple years, and when we transitioned and purchased this building in 1992, we had no sooner settled in when we realized we were having some financial issues,” said Kopp. “It was so severe that we called an all-member meeting, had our corporate attorney here, and talked about where we were going to go, and whether we’d dissolve as an organization.
“And I remember one member stood up and said we’ve got to keep this organization going, and I’m going to challenge my business friends, and he stood up and wrote a check for $1,000, and some of his friends did the same.”
That took care of the chamber’s short-term financial issues, but not its long-term direction.
“When we started talking about one of the things we could do, we talked about going to the city and adopting a room tax so we had some revenue to work with,” said Kopp. “The chamber president did not agree and resigned, and by the end of the meeting I was the president.”
But Kopp’s stay as president didn’t last long. “I think I have the record of shortest-time president — three months,” she said. Members suggested she apply for the then-vacant position of executive director, and, she decided “that might be something I could do for a year or two.”
Kopp discovered when she took over as executive director that the chamber had essentially no money, and no office supplies. When she mentioned that to a board member, he asked, “‘Did you take in any money today?’ I’ve lived with that ever since.”
The chamber launched a capital campaign and raised $110,000, which allowed the chamber to pay off the mortgage on its building on West Business 151 four years after it moved there.
Today, the chamber has two full-time staff, two part-time staff, and UW–Platteville student interns. Membership has grown from 170 to 320 in the past two decades.
“The most credit I give is to the members of the business community that stepped up to the plate to serve on the chamber board,” said Kopp. “Their consistent support for the business community is really what makes this chamber.”
Some of those 320 members are in competition with other members.
“I personally feel that competition is good,” said Kopp. “I owned a clothing store a number of years ago on Main Street. The retail business, if you have a specialty shop, the more specialty shops you have, the better it is. We have become a regional retail hub here. What people see is we have this neat community that has a lot of retail opportunities and service opportunities.”
One of the chamber’s most obvious goals is to promote Platteville-area residents to shop in Platteville. The 15-year Santa Bucks campaign set a record with almost $300,000 in receipts in 2012.
“That shows that the community places value on our local businesses, and that’s a message that we need to keep promoting,” said Kopp.
One thing the chamber has tried to promote is better ties between the city of Platteville and UW–Platteville.
“When I first started here 20 years ago, there was such division between the city of Platteville and the university,” said Kopp. “The city of Platteville effectively ended at Hickory Street. The university was effectively its little piece unto itself. So we reached out to the university, because we needed them as much as they needed us.”
Former UW–Platteville chancellor David Markee and the chamber created United We Prosper, which met quarterly to bring together UWP officials and chamber members, “sort of a roundtable — let’s talk about what everybody else is doing,” said Kopp. “I think that’s what really bridged town and gown and opened partnering to what we have today.”
Markee was instrumental in the push to get three, not two, Platteville exits on the U.S. 151 expressway just before construction began. The state Department of Transportation originally planned to have 151 exits at just Grant County XX, the previous 151 (now Business 151), and Wisconsin 80/81. Markee helped form a task force that pushed the DOT to add a third exit, at Grant County D, closest to the UWP campus.
That may have helped Platteville take over for the rest stop at U.S. 61/151 and Wisconsin 11 as a state Travel Information Center after the state closed all its Travel Information Centers in the late 2000s.
The chamber is currently in what it calls a Promotion Education and Tourism process. Kopp describes it as “how we take these priorities we focus on and put them into goals and long-range planning.”
Some chambers of commerce are involved in local and state politics, endorsing candidates for office. The Platteville chamber does not.
“It means this organization does not take sides,” said Kopp. “We want to provide a forum for our community to be heard, whether it’s a local election or a state election or whatever. If we took positions, we’re going to be alienating some members, so we don’t take positions; we provide information.”
The chamber did provide support to a group of its businesses to form the Downtown Parking Alliance as the Platteville Common Council discussed downtown parking last year.
“We encouraged them to organize as a group — you don’t need a chamber to do that,” said Kopp. “Kind of provided them some groundwork and encouraged them that they had a voice.”
The chamber participates in a project it spearheaded, the Community Leadership Alliance, with UW–Extension in Grant, Lafayette and Iowa counties. The CLA is a six-month program in which participants spend one day a month learning about organizations in those three counties. The CLA has more than 400 graduates.
With 50 years of history, Kopp said she is “looking for more big ideas. Going through the history the way I have, I’ve learned it was members of this organization’s board that made connections, who saw a vision, that we needed a municipal hospital, and made it happen. Much of the same board had the same vision and saw that we need industry here.”