As about 200 people formally celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce, the unspoken message might have echoed Mark Twain’s famous statement.
Despite some rocky times in the last couple years, reports of the Ahwatukee Chamber ‘s demise appear premature.
“The Chamber is definitely at a whole new level and it’s doing really well,” said board Chairman Tom Dougherty, an Ahwatukee resident and owner of Action Coach of Arizona.
“We’ve seen more members coming to events. We’re doing more events. We’re doing less big events, but we’re doing it with really focusing on the key ones,” he added.
One of those big events was last week’s celebration, which included a special recognition of the seven charter businesses that formed the Ahwatukee Chamber a quarter century ago.
The celebration will feature the seven original charter members of the Chamber: Ahwatukee Community Swim, Tennis and Event Center, the YMCA, Landings Credit Union, Arizona’s Vision, Lynn Hennessy State Farm, Brewer’s Air Conditioning & Heating and Ahwatukee Trophies & Awards.
Perhaps an even more notable part of the program was the awarding of $1,000 scholarships to each of five Ahwatukee women by the Chamber’s Women in Business Committee – the largest total of scholarships that committee has awarded in years, possibly since its formation.
It wasn’t always that way and less than two years ago, the business organization looked as if it was in death throes.
As 2017 ended, the board was forced to eliminate the Chamber’s CEO position.
That came about six months after it announced that its popular Red, White and BOOM! Independence Day celebration and fireworks display was cancelled.
Although the fireworks show did lose its staging area to the South Mountain Freeway construction, the Chamber simply was too broke to throw a community party that drew thousands in the past.
It had made an effort to get a sponsor to help cover the cost, but the unidentified business pulled out at the last minute.
There was even some talk of possibly forming some kind of an alliance with one of the far bigger chambers in either Chandler or Tempe.
But a small group of Ahwatukee businessmen and women who were on the board at the time weren’t about to let a community institution fade into oblivion.
Under then chairman Ross Murray of HomeBridge Financial, a group of board members began an effort to re-energize the organization, cutting expenses as they went along.
They had considerable help from their only fulltime employee at the time, Gina Jenkins, whom they ultimately made executive director until she moved earlier this year to Atlanta after her husband was transferred for his job.
“She did a phenomenal job,” Dougherty said of Jenkins. “She was very instrumental in getting a lot of the key components together for us that year.”
But the real backbone of that revitalizing effort involved the volunteer members who donated hours of their time to staff mixers and ribbon cuttings and get out the word that reports of the Ahwatukee Chamber’s demise were way premature.
“We have some phenomenal volunteers at the Chamber and the volunteers really make it happen because we run them with a small staff,” Dougherty said.
Some of those volunteers are Chamber ambassadors, who do the legwork of staffing ribbon cuttings for new businesses as well as for longtime members whose businesses are marking anniversaries.
“There’s a lot going on,” Dougherty said. “There’s something almost every single day. So, you gotta be careful not to let any of the volunteers get burned out as well. We’re always looking for more volunteers so that we don’t burn anyone out.”
“I definitely don’t go to as many events as the ambassadors do,” he added. “They’re out there working tirelessly every single night.”
Ahwatukee chiropractor Dr. Cameron Call of Horizon Chiropractic and Shelley Miller of Essentially Shelley co-chair the ambassadors committee, which includes Rick Allen of Legal Shield, Madhu Chadha of WSI-Optimized Web Solutions, Dee Gordon of Sundance Spa and Salon, Lisa Liddy of Ruby Ribbon, Trudi Kayser of Life Made To Order Financial, Laura Meehan of the Ahwatukee Foothills News, Käthe Munyan of Wells Fargo and Chris Valeri of Paychex.
Part of the Chamber’s cost-cutting involved moving out of its offices on Chandler Boulevard near 42nd Street and into far smaller space farther west on Chandler near Marketplace.
But an even bigger effort has involved ensuring services that underscore the value of belonging to the Chamber.
“We’ve made sure that no matter what, you’re getting major value,” Dougherty said. “We’ve increased the value for the members and to really get them engaged and find ways to help their business grow quicker, whether it’s through networking or coaching.”
Along with helpful programs like Toastmasters to help members become more comfortable with public speaking and various networking events, those ribbon cuttings also provide a benefit for members,, Dougherty said.
“The number one reason people leave the chamber is because they just don’t get involved,” he said. “So, the ambassadors are in charge of reaching out to members, making sure they’re invited to mixers and ribbon cuttings and getting them involved.
“We can put a mixer at their place; we can put on a ribbon cutting. It really keeps you on the forefront of the community’s mind and gets customers into your store or restaurant or business.”
Members see that exposure resulting in more business, Dougherty said.
“I’ve had restaurants tell me ‘We had our ribbon cutting or a mixer and in the new business from that one event more than paid for our membership. So, it’s a no-brainer,” he explained.
But helping businesses isn’t the Chamber’s only mission, Dougherty stressed.
It also makes building community a major part of its mission now more than ever.
“It’s all about building a community,” Dougherty said. “We have small business owners that live here and when they do well, they can give back to other business owners. They can create jobs, creating abundance not only for their household, but the people that work for them and the rest of the community.”
Pointing to the Chamber public policy committee’s forum earlier this year for Phoenix mayoral candidates and one not long ago featuring Mayor Kate Gallego, Dougherty said “those were all instrumental things in helping out the community, educating them on major issues.”
After Jenkins’ departure, the board hired Andrew Hayes as its new executive director and Dougherty said, “Andy’s doing a terrific job.”
Dougherty credits Hayes with coming up with the idea of recruiting Arizona State University as a member.
“He said we have so many grads who live in Ahwatukee, it made sense to approach them and they agreed,” Dougherty said.
Big companies and organizations are critical to any chamber of commerce but given Ahwatukee’s size, they’re hard to come by, he noted.
While the Chandler, Gilbert and Tempe chambers can attract large companies because they have substantial facilities in their municipalities, the Ahwatukee Chamber has to make its pitch to at least some of those companies on the basis of the number of employees who live in Ahwatukee.
“We have some key businesses like SRP and San tan Ford and Cox, Wild Horse Pass. They’ve really stepped up this year,” Dougherty said.
Pointing to Hayes’ recruitment of ASU, he said, “We need that creative thinking outside the box that the business doesn’t have to be in Ahwatukee to be a member.”
That includes attracting businesses in Tempe and Chandler that are just across the I-10, he added.
With membership currently around 350, he said:
“I would like to see the chamber increase the membership by another 50 percent and I would like to see it be like when a new business comes into Ahwatukee that it’s assumed that they should be joining the chamber.”
Noting that 80 percent of new businesses fold in two years, Dougherty said, “Our job at the chamber is to help make sure that doesn’t happen.
“So, if we can change that statistic, that would be very helpful. I think we’re doing it.”