Supporting the Sellers

The changing role of the business association.


The earliest chambers of commerce took shape even before America declared itself a nation, with Boston and Charleston leading the way. By 1911, hundreds of business groups had formed across the U.S., and President William Taft, on the advice his commerce and labor secretary, declared the need for overarching structure and oversight. One year later, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States was established.

Fast-forward to 2019. As local, independent businesses stare down a relentless online marketplace and family businesses face younger generations eager to forge paths far from home, how has the role of business development associations evolved in supporting merchants of all sizes, and communities and urban neighborhoods eager to maintain their individuality?

Serving Every Size

Suzanne Kelley has served as president and CEO of Waukesha County Business Alliance for 10 years following a 23-year career in government relations for GE. Business development, she explains, is in her blood.

“I’m a native of Waukesha County,” Kelley says. “My parents were immigrants from Germany and my father started a small business in the basement of our home in Brookfield. I saw firsthand how that business grew and evolved and was my parents’ dream, and was able to support the family — and support my education growing up. I grew up in a small business environment and then worked for a number of years in corporate America, so I have a passion for businesses of all sizes. That’s really what brought me to this role: The ability to work with the business community in the county that I love.”

The Waukesha County Business Alliance formed more than 100 years ago, focused on growing commerce in the city of Waukesha. Since then, Kelley says, the alliance and its partner organization, Waukesha County Center for Growth, have evolved to support companies and businesses of all sizes throughout every community in Waukesha County.

“We represent every kind of industry that you can think of — manufacturing and construction, finance, banking, health care, transportation, IT, business services, you name it,” Kelley explains. “But I would say that 92 percent of our members today are small businesses [with 100 employees or fewer]. … And when you think of small business success, it’s not only bringing consumers into the store, but [asking] do they have the right kind of professional development available for their employees? What is the business climate in the region? What are the pro-business policies that affect those businesses? What are the larger networking opportunities that they can plug into to expand their customer base? Those are really the things that the Waukesha County Business Alliance focuses on.”

Kelley says that that broad variety of member businesses — from sole proprietorships to expansive global companies like GE and Quad/Graphics — affords the Alliance equally broad opportunities for knowledge-sharing, with larger corporations “mentoring” growing businesses, and small-business owners banding together to foster shared success.

“We’ve created a number of programs specifically targeting small businesses and small-business owners,” Kelley shares. “An example of that would be our small-business CEO roundtables where we bring together eight to 12 business owners on a monthly basis. They can share best practices, discuss common issues and really serve as each other’s personal board of advisors. We also offer a small business alliance program, where we bring in an expert speaker six times a year on a variety of topics such as goal setting, embracing change, accountability and risk-taking. They share their information, and then we have a group discussion as part of those programs. [And] we provide really cost-effective leadership development. We have a nine-month program called Leadership Waukesha County. It’s a place where small businesses can send their employees for professional development. They meet every other week for three hours and cover a wide variety of leadership topics.”

Kelley notes that, in Waukesha County, attracting and retaining a committed, quality workforce is a shared challenge for businesses of all sizes.

“That is the No. 1 issue for our member businesses,” she says, “and so we have a lot of programs focusing on their needs. How do we attract workforce? How do we develop workforce? How do we retain workforce in our region?”

To that end, Waukesha County Business Alliance has forged strong partnerships with the counties’ school districts to foster a commitment to business education, from elementary schools through post secondary institutions. And to augment the idea that students don’t need to leave Waukesha County to create a rewarding and lucrative career.

“Many young people aren’t aware of the great companies and industries and jobs that we have in our region,” Kelley says. “So we spend a lot of time talking to middle school students, high school students and college students about the kinds of great companies that we have here in Southeastern Wisconsin.”

The State of the Ward

Jim Plaisted is the executive director of Historic Third Ward Association, which was established in 1976 as the Ward began its remarkable evolution into the inspired mix of buzz-worthy dining, shopping, art and entertainment options, plus diverse businesses and upscale shared living spaces that make the downtown district a favored destination for locals and visitors alike. Plaisted also served the East Side Business Improvement District, the Shorewood Business Improvement District and the Village of Wauwatosa Business Improvement District, and he calls his career something of a happy accident that began
in 1999.

“I was working at City Hall as legislative assistant to Alderman Michael D’Amato when the East Side Business Improvement District posted their executive director position,” Plaisted explains. “It’s been a very rewarding career for me as I get to work with stakeholders in communities that care passionately about their commercial neighborhoods. I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most talented business owners, entrepreneurs, restaurateurs, real estate developers and cultural institutions in Milwaukee, Wauwatosa and Shorewood.”

Plaisted says that Wisconsin affords its business development organizations a refreshingly wide berth in doing what’s best for their individual interests.

“As far as BIDs are concerned, the beauty of the State of Wisconsin enabling legislation [in 1984] is the flexibility it allows local communities to shape the BID assessment and budgets to their unique neighborhoods, needs and wants, and character,” Plaisted explains. “Someone once advised me ‘read what the law doesn’t say.’ Wisconsin and Milwaukee flourish in the creation of BIDs because big and small neighborhoods can utilize the BID organization to create unique programming suited to their planning and outcome goals.”  

 In Plaisted’s and his colleagues’ and members’ case, that means the ability to be nimble in the face of remarkable growth and evolution, including the arrival of The Hop street car, the success of the Kimpton Journeyman boutique hotel, the creation of Milwaukee Ballet’s beautiful Baumgartner Center for Dance, a burgeoning number of upscale living and business spaces, and more.

The result is an irresistibly diverse neighborhood that puts online shopping and ordering your dinner from DoorDash to sociable, colorful shame.

“What we find here in the Historic Third Ward is that the experiential aspect of retail shopping is still going strong,” Plaisted says. “Our retailers — through customer service, product lines and events in their store — offer so much more for shoppers. And a huge added benefit of shopping in the area that is our historic architecture, beautiful streetscapes, public spaces like the Riverwalk, and destinations like the Milwaukee Public Market all add to the experience. Online cannot compete with us!”

Nor can it offer visitors the opportunity to play a supportive role in our fellow residents’ worthy ambitions.

“In my career, and here in the Historic Third Ward, you experience firsthand the aspirations and dreams of Milwaukee’s small-business people,” Plaisted says. “I’m awed by their passion, commitment and savvy to not only survive but thrive in their hyper competitive markets. From Carrie Arrouet at Lela, or Karen Bell at Bavette, Deb Kern and Doug McDonald at Mod Gen, or the growing JVR restaurant group led by Dan Jacobs and Dan Van Rite, we are proud to be home of so many of Milwaukee’s gifted entrepreneurs. In my world, you are on the street every day, fomenting change and offering support in these vital communities.” 

Preserving Main Street

In Whitefish Bay, Jeff Commer — himself an independent business owner — helms the Merchants of Whitefish Bay. The volunteer-run business improvement organization focuses primarily on preserving and growing the destination-worthy charm of the village’s Silver Spring Drive business and entertainment district. Because it is comparatively small in size, Commer says his BID faces a unique set of challenges.

“What we as a BID, as a group of different businesses, work together to promote in this case is almost like Main Street in Whitefish Bay — but it could be Main Street anywhere,” Commer explains. “We’re getting the community to eat, drink, shop, dine, spend time and ultimately spend money supporting the mom-and-pop type businesses that make up the fabric of our community — and many other communities throughout Wisconsin and throughout the country. We’re constantly trying to figure out ways to bring people from both Whitefish Bay and the North Shore and metro Milwaukee to our shopping district to check things out, to purchase that really cool pair of shoes at Yellow Wood or get something to eat at City Market, or get a brand-new print framed at The Great Frame Up. Our board is made up of business owners like me, plus retail business owners and also a couple of residents. Nine of us meet once a month and strategize to figure out what we would like to do, and how to increase both the look and feel of the street, and how to market the different events that we do to bring in more people.”

In keeping with the upscale, lakeside community’s idyllic feel, Merchants of Whitefish Bay helms multiple gatherings each year  — including a farmer’s market, a popular Holiday Stroll, the Sidewalk Sale-A-Bration and last summer’s inaugural Art Fest that Commer hopes to grow in its second year — all designed to gather residents and visitors alike to enjoy the lost arts of customer appreciation and creating community.”

Merchants of Whitefish Bay member Lisa Kelly opened her popular casual upscale clothing store, The Navy Knot, four years ago in response to her own frustration at having to travel to the East Coast to find the sort of classic, well-made attire she sought for her family, coupled with the sort of customer service that ensures shoppers are happy with their purchases each and every time. She credits the Merchants of Whitefish Bay for assisting her with everything from licensing and permits to securing funding for evolving needs. And, she notes, the BID — specifically its executive director, Commer’s wife Katie — has been invaluable in creating those events to draw a wider net of shoppers into the stores and in truly listening to the suggestions and concerns of Whitefish Bay small business owners.

For Kelly, that entails support from both the village and the BID in seeking out and supporting more small retailers to occupy Silver Spring Drive’s open storefronts and create a shopping district with real variety. “I’d like to see a children’s shop or a shoe shop or a little gift shop — or even more women’s boutiques — to truly make it a shopping destination,” Kelly says, lamenting a recent influx of identical service businesses that then struggle to survive. “That is what this community wants, especially in a walking community like Whitefish Bay. They want to walk around, and they want to shop at all the stores and they really want to support local.”

Commer agrees that Whitefish Bay is proud of its neighborhoods and supportive of its neighborhood businesses. As are the folks who helm the Merchants of Whitefish Bay. 

“We’re all volunteers, and that’s what we’re trying to do is promote the street,” he says, adding that new lamppost-style streetlights are in the works for 2020. “We’re just trying to make it charming and open to people to come and enjoy.” MKE