When Lori Syverson’s parents opened an Italian restaurant in Waukesha, Wis., more than 35 years ago, her father made a point of joining the local chamber of commerce. He figured membership could help bring more customers through the door.
Businesses today don’t need the local chamber of commerce for marketing, said Syverson, who should know — she’s president of the Edina Chamber of Commerce. Instead, she said, “New members are looking for something different than that traditional model.”
Suburban chambers of commerce are branching out from the conventional chamber model, gearing more programming toward workforce development, shaping talent pipelines with local school districts, addressing job shortages and preparing young people for emerging industries.
While they continue to plug local businesses and offer networking, many chambers have revised their mission statements to play a more holistic role in the community.
Edina’s chamber, for example, last week unveiled a new initiative aimed at branding the city as a center of well-being — a place where physical, social and spiritual health is cultivated and residents and visitors can find purpose.
The thought is simple, Syverson said: “If you have a healthy, more vibrant community as a whole, you are then going to have a healthier and more vibrant business community.”
“We have to be thinking about programs that are relevant to the community and the times,” said Tom Snell, executive director of the White Bear Area Chamber of Commerce. For Snell, that means anticipating trends and thinking about what successful businesses and employees will need a decade from now.
Two years ago, a White Bear Area chamber luncheon featured a visit and speech by a humanlike robot that talked about the future of artificial intelligence and robotics. Snell had worked for years to bring the robot to White Bear Lake to spark a conversation about what industries may someday employ humanoid robots and how employers and educators could prepare.
With help from the chamber, the city of White Bear Lake is in the process of negotiating a contract with the state Department of Transportation for an automated vehicle pilot program. The program, a possible transportation option for aging and disabled residents, would offer learning opportunities for area high school and college students. City leaders say Snell has played a crucial role in bringing together various organizations to plan the program.
“Chambers can and should be taking on the role of moving their communities forward,” Snell said. “It’s about how we are going to create the types of jobs that are going to make the area a real key player in coming years.”
The St. Louis Park-based TwinWest Chamber of Commerce, which represents west metro businesses, is training its sights on workforce development and recently launched a digital platform to connect area students with local business leaders.
“We know there’s a significant talent shortage in areas and we know that our educators and students need more career-connected learning experiences,” said Shannon Full, TwinWest’s president. “We are positioning ourselves as that partner to help bridge the gap between education and business.”
Looking at life purpose
While workforce development and job creation are core goals of the Edina chamber’s new lifestyle initiative, called “Green Umbrella,” the overarching goal is about promoting well-being and purpose, which officials believe will lead to more economic success and innovation.
When the city of Edina completed its strategic plan about three years ago, feedback indicated that residents and business owners were proud of the medical and well-being assets already there.
“We saw that as an open door for us as a chamber — we have so many wonderful businesses here ranging from Eastern medicine to chiropractors to spas,” Syverson said. “This all was already here. We just needed an organization like the chamber to serve as the marketing arm to drive the economic wheel of these assets.”
The Edina chamber has worked with local author and life coach Richard Leider on events designed to help residents think about their purpose in life. The chamber now is running three pilot programs to promote purposeful living.
“We had no idea what kind of interest talking about purpose would generate,” Syverson said. “But these are sellout events. It’s now just a natural topic for us to include in Green Umbrella.”
Another component of Green Umbrella is a business accelerator program, expected to launch this summer. That program, developed with Microsoft and Minnesota State University, Mankato, will focus on supporting new businesses focused on well-being.
Green Umbrella will include an online portal listing area businesses and activities related to physical and social health. A resident might use it to find places they could take a yoga class, or to obtain a full listing of dermatologists in the city.
“This is about helping residents connect to and feel they are part of the community,” Syverson said. “And we’ve found that our businesses also want to feel a part of a broader mission.”
The Edina chamber has partnered with Edina Public Schools and MSU, Mankato, which has an Edina campus, to better expose students to careers and learning opportunities related to well-being.
Despite the more expansive roles that chambers of commerce have taken on in recent years, they still face a public relations problem: Most residents aren’t aware of the kind of work being done by their local chamber.
“Over the last 10 years, there’s been considerably more demand for the services that chambers put out there,” Full said. “Yet we are challenged with a lack of awareness around how chambers are being innovative leaders.”
Preparing a community for the future marketplace is a challenge shared by all chambers, but success will look different from one chamber to the next, Syverson said.
“We’re all facing the same questions, but I don’t think it’s possible to look at a different chamber and say ‘Oh, look at that, we should try that,’ ” she said. “Solutions really have to be specific to the existing strengths of the community.”