Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Reinventing the chamber of commerce

by John Halverson

June 13, 2013

Any way you look at it, there will be changes at the Geneva Lake Area Chamber of Commerce.

A few weeks ago the chamber board announced that George Hennerley had retired as its head after 33 years.

A nationwide search is under way for a replacement.

But this is more than a search for Hennerley’s successor. The chamber’s leadership has more ambitious goals. They’re rethinking the whole idea of the chamber, broadening its scope, refining its goals, reinventing itself.

That will impact Lake Geneva and the Geneva Lake area. Tourism is our economic engine. There are some who wish they could enjoy the area’s beauty without sharing it with anyone. Places as beautiful as Lake Geneva just don’t remain secrets. So let’s make the best of this wonderful natural resource.

And from my experience, the chamber isn’t a bunch of “suits.”

I think those people on city government and the chamber who navigate our destiny, know what they have here and don’t want to kill the golden goose. They want a classy, properly-scaled retail district, not Wisconsin Dells. No one wants our environment ruined, either.

And I think there’s a movement within the chamber to take on larger issues: creating new jobs, helping those unemployed return to work, becoming a voice for residents and visitors as well as businesses. That’s a more holistic approach that would be refreshing and potentially very positive for the community.

Here are some of my opinions as to what the chamber might tackle:

1. Help make Lake Geneva a winter destination.

Even the best of our tourist-oriented businesses struggle between Christmas and Memorial Day. Every year we have a handful of empty storefronts downtown. In a way, that’s OK. The strong survive and we have new businesses to attract visitors every summer. On the other hand, it would be a boost for the entire community if we could eliminate the view that Lake Geneva is closed for winter. Winterfest is a big draw, but that’s just one weekend. There is talk of expanding it to a week or longer. That’s a start.

2. Bring the locals back to the downtown.

The business people would love it if locals became more vibrant customers. This disconnect is complicated and decades old, but people have to recognize that Lake Geneva is a tourist community. Some working class residents of the city see the downtown as the enemy. Some well-heeled summer residents don’t fully involve themselves in the community either. This doesn’t have to be.

3. Leverage new media.

As much as traditional newspapers have suffered by the move to various electronic media, we all know how important new media is. Getting fresh leadership at the chamber who are new media savvy would be a big help. I might add that I think the Regional News and our ReelLifeTV offshoot, can serve a purpose, too. In the past at least, I think we’ve been seen as just a nice little local paper. I’d like to believe we’re more than that. We can be partners of the business community and still keep our integrity as a source of news. Is that comment self serving? Sure.

4. Do something to improve the parking and traffic issues.

One member of the business community has noted that “we only have a parking problem if there are too many empty stalls.” He’s right, and the traffic and parking issues will never go away completely. There may not be a “silver bullet.” A parking structure, for instance, would be financially challenged because it would remain dormant in the off season (unless we developed that winter business). That said, I think the recent parking study done by the city may create some tweaks — like a shuttle or better utilization of current off-street parking.

5. Expand the downtown farther down Broad Street.

Some visitors are disappointed that the Lake Geneva shopping district appears to be only a few blocks long. It doesn’t have to be.

The only non-land locked area for expansion is down Broad Street. Simple has shown itself to be an attraction on the north side; so was Rose’s Fresh Market before it closed. The problem is that visitors stop when they reach the dilapidated Traver Hotel.

6. Marry the needs of the downtown and the greater chamber.

Is the goal of the tourist arm of the chamber to bring people to the community or to properly direct them once they get here? I think the answer is: Both. It’s not a secret that sometimes merchants have disagreed on this mission. As a result, sometimes talented people have had those talents diminished by internal debates. I interviewed several people for this column. No one wanted to be on the record. That’s not what I wanted, but there’s a good side. Everyone hopes new leadership will bring with it a new team atmosphere and no one wants to undermine that with a careless comment to the media.

I think a re-invention, a refreshing, at the chamber could impact the entire community in a positive way.

The new person will have a lot of raw material to work with — both in terms of talent and the city’s obvious charms.

They’ll have big shoes to fill, too. While some people disagreed with Hennerley, he was universally liked and three decades of longevity meant something.

But with new blood comes new ideas.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes down.

Halverson is editor and general manager of the Regional News.