Under new leadership, the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce piled up a "big plate" of initiatives in the past year, from an array of new small-business programs to the recent establishment of a "super PAC" to boost political advocacy.
Those initiatives will only accelerate in the coming year, Chamber Chairman Bruce Dusenberry told members and other attendees Tuesday at the chamber's first-ever "chairman's luncheon," at the Manning House.
"The chamber in the past year really has had a big plate - we've got a great many initiatives we are trying to get done," said Dusenberry, president and CEO of Horizon Moving Systems.
Last year's chamber chairman, Sol Casinos CEO Wendell Long, said the group's new leadership and focus on five main priorities identified in member surveys has reinvigorated the 1,350-member chamber.
Former Las Vegas-area chamber executive Mike Varney was named president and CEO of the Tucson Chamber in May 2011. He replaced longtime chamber CEO Jack Camper, who retired. The chamber also hired former Wells Fargo Bank executive Bill Holmes as chief operating officer and several other key staffers.
"This year was a huge turning point for the chamber," said Long, whose term as chairman ended March 31. "We got a lot accomplished. We have new leadership, and now we've got to run it the right way."
Varney said several surveys of members helped guide the chamber's new agenda and helped stem a decline in membership in recent years.
"Our goal this year was to stabilize it, and now we're going to grow it," he said in an interview.
Long said the chamber made progress on each of its five priorities in the past year, highlighting key moves in each area:
• "Super-serving" small businesses.
The chamber started a small-business growth committee, small-business workshops on growth and marketing and networking events such as the "Chamber Exchange" program. The group also boosted financial benefits for members, including new office-supply discounts and group health insurance offers.
• Aggressive pro-business political advocacy. The chamber stepped up its political activities with a new website to track lawmakers' performance on business issues and rally members to contact their elected officials.
The chamber also transformed its traditional political action committee into a "super PAC," now called the Southern Arizona Business PAC (www.tucsonadvocacy.com). Super PACs are allowed to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to independently support or oppose political candidates or causes. The super PAC will operate independent of the chamber, though it will share some board members, Varney said.
"That allows us to help pro-business candidates," regardless of party affiliation, Long said.
• Developing the local economy.
With a new economic-development committee in place, the chamber successfully pushed for the recent adoption of a new local-contractor preference system by the Tucson City Council, Long noted.
The chamber also launched a new program, Business Expansion and Retention, or BEAR, with a committee to quickly identify "red flag" issues preventing local business growth and to intervene as needed in specific cases, with a companion effort to identify and resolve long-standing issues.
• Improving education. The chamber beefed up data offerings on local schools and hosted a "state of education" luncheon in May to focus on education reform and workforce development, awarding college scholarships to eight area high school graduates.
• Communications and leadership.
Under its "First Impressions" project, the chamber is leading an effort to beautify the roadways around Tucson International Airport, to create a better first and last impression of the city.
The group also started weekly "Breakfast with the Board" meetings, inviting six members to air their ideas and concerns with a board member and CEO Varney.
The chamber has formed a promotional and resource-sharing partnership with Greater Tucson Leadership, a 10-month civic leadership program that started with the chamber but was spun off in 1986.
Dusenberry said the chamber's new board plans to continue all of the new programs and start some new ones.
High on the chamber's list of priorities, he said, is to support development of a regional master plan, citing the work of Imagine Greater Tucson.
"The Tucson chamber is going to try and be one of the leaders in the effort," he said to applause, citing the success of the Regional Transportation Authority in winning transportation funding.
Copper Cactus changes
The Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce plans to announce today that the group will host the Copper Cactus Awards, under continuing sponsorship by Wells Fargo Bank.
The Copper Cactus Awards honor local businesses in categories including best place to work and business growth.
Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at email@example.com or 573-4181.