CBJ Editorial

Membership organizations must continually evolve and change to ensure that they are providing value to their members. If they don’t, they risk becoming irrelevant, causing membership to decline to an unsustainable level.

We’ve seen two recent examples of that in Johnson County, where the most prominent economic development organizations — the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Iowa City Area Development Group (ICAD) — have been in a self-examination process for several years. It’s a reflection of changing economic, political and economic development realities.

ICAD and the chamber even looked at consolidating efforts in 2019, ultimately deciding to remain independent entities even though they moved into the same office space.

ICAD has traditionally focused on helping attract and grow interstate commerce companies, but in recent years started to help startups and the entrepreneurial ecosystem. The chamber tended to focus on business networking, programming and public policy advocacy.

ICAD’s board is currently asking introspective questions following the departure of Mark Nolte, its longtime president, while Vice President Kate Moreland has been serving quite ably as interim president.

“What value do we provide?” is one of the most important questions organizations can ask, particularly during such times of leadership transition. It’s also smart to look at an organization’s overall brand, and the Iowa City Chamber did just that, announcing a new brand at its recent annual meeting.

The new brand, Iowa City Area Business Partnership removes the “Chamber of Commerce” moniker that was perceived to be outdated, particularly to millennials, who are a growing percentage of the business population. Many other economic development organizations across the country and state, such as the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance, have removed “chamber of commerce” from their names as well.

“Our new mission statement is to make Johnson County the best place to live, work and learn by serving our local business community,” said Kim Casko, Business Partnership President and CEO, adding the organization spent much of 2019 developing a new 10-year strategic plan aimed at “building the best global business ecosystem in the world.”

While the new brand and lofty goals are admirable, we would only urge the Business Partnership to remain grounded. There is, for instance, a generally clear understanding of what “chamber of commerce” organizations do. Having jettisoned that name, the Business Partnership may have to back up its new name with a campaign to explain its mission, and whether it has changed.

Ms. Casko spoke with urgency of the Partnership’s need to “continue to reinvent our services to meet an ever-changing business community” and to expand its membership. While this too is admirable, we hope it can be done in a way that does not neglect the Partnership’s longstanding members.

Johnson County needs strong and vibrant economic development organizations. We hope the big changes ahead will strengthen their base without losing the focus that has made them effective in the past.  •