Within the military-style organizational chart that describes the new Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, a group of volunteer foot-soldiers is deploying to small businesses.
They are conducting interviews, hosting educational forums and networking.
They were known as ambassadors in the old Chamber of Commerce model. They had launched Chamber University and Chamber Connect and hosted business-after-hours events.
Then last year the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce merged with the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp., and small-business owners wondered who would go to battle for them.
The answer, said Amy Scheller — who chairs the executive committee of the Business Alliance Local Business Team — is the Business Alliance.
Scheller once headed the Chamber ambassadors. After the merger, she took her ideas about how to improve the group, and give it some teeth, to the new leader, Business Alliance president and CEO Joe Raso.
Scheller and others had been researching other combined Chamber-EDCs. They knew there was fear among small-business owners about the merger and they wanted to get out in front of it.
“We knew that with the merger … that obviously things were going to have to change radically,” she said.
But Scheller wasn’t worried. The organization never intended on leaving Main Street or mom-and-pop businesses out of the plan, she said. The new leadership and long-time volunteers were marching in unison, she added: “We have the best interests of the city in mind, so there was never any concern there.”
For the past year, staff and volunteer business leaders met to pound out the organizational chart, develop strategy and create policy. They came up with nine sector teams — aerospace and defense, health care, higher education, information technology, local business, medical innovation and technology, nonprofits, sports and clean tech.
The local business team is headed by Ted Robertson, owner of RCN Group. Its goal, he said, is to build a stronger business community. The team is careful not to define local business as small business or Main Street business.
“The local business team focuses primarily on business development for the retail, service and local employers — to serve the needs of business, help the sector, help them grow, support them and communicate their successes,” said Dave White, Business Alliance chief of business development.
It’s the former ambassador group, but better, Robertson said. Where there were 65 ambassadors, there are now nearly 100 local business team members. And the group still plans to carry out its networking programs that small-business owners feared were gone. This year’s calendar has only four fewer social/networking events than when the Chamber was hosting mixers, Robertson said.
The local business team has evolved from an event staff to a more sophisticated business development arm of the Business Alliance, Robertson said. It now is collecting data about the area’s 19,000 local businesses to help shape political endorsements, drive the agenda with the city and county, and narrow the focus on such big issues as workforce development, permitting and safety, he said.
Meanwhile, Business Alliance Connect events will be mixers for small, local businesses and those known as base sector employers — those businesses where more than 50 percent of their revenue comes from outside the region.
There is room for more volunteers on the local business team, Robertson said. He describes the operation as being on an intense recruitment drive for subject matter experts in 13 areas, including retail, banking and finance. The idea is for local business owners to provide business education, development and outreach.
“It’s a little bit of small-business triage,” Robertson said.
This month, Raso unveiled the organizational chart with its divisions, councils, advisory groups, committees and subcommittees. Robertson hopes small-business owners will see the local business team as the answer to the former ambassador group and end fears that the Business Alliance only is interested in big business.
“I think we are starting to see the level of tension decline,” he said. “The rubber is meeting the road now where we become a service provider organization and that resource-aggregating organization.”
The organizational chart of the Business Alliance might seem overwhelming. But it involves 500 volunteers deploying to different businesses, White said. Scheller will head up a group of eight team members that conduct onsite surveys of local businesses.
Businesses do not have to be members of the Business Alliance to take the survey, White said. Any business can request the survey, which asks about future plans, issues and challenges. The team also will be on the hunt for companies that are scalable — that is, they can grow beyond El Paso County and turn into a base sector employer.
“I’ve been in economic development for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a community go to this level in terms of support for local business,” White said. “This is a new paradigm.”
White said he knows the new Business Alliance still has to win over hearts of some small businesses that left either the former Chamber or former EDC when the groups merged. But he feels strongly that the data the group collects will put power in the organization’s hands, something that will be attractive to all business owners.
“At the end of the year, the goal is 200 local business surveys,” White said. “Can you imagine the power of that data? Then we can go to [the city, county and utilities] and say this is not our opinion, it’s not anecdotal — this is what the business community is saying. So what are you going to do about it?”
Areas of focus:
Education — through Business Alliance University, four events per year.
Networking — through Business After Hours, eight events per year; and Business Alliance Connect, four to five groups with two meetings per month.
Policy — team members represent local business on standing governmental committees, including local/regional, state and federal.
Business development — via outreach and experienced members assisting with business interviews.
Communications — work with staff to relay messages from businesses.
Membership — for local business team, $50 per year above participating as member/investors.