Jennifer Johnson (left) and Heidi Gullickson review some of the materials produced by the Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce. Johnson last month was named executive director of the Brookings Area Convention and Visitors Bureau; Gullickson took over as director of the Chamber earlier this year. Photo by Ken Curley/Register
/ This is the “welcome to Brookings” team – the trio of professionals whose job is to bring visitors and new business to Brookings. They include Al Heuton of the Brookings Economic Development Corporation, Heidi Gullickson (center) of the Chamber of Commerce, and Jennifer Johnson of the Convention and Visitors Bureau. BACC photo
• Chamber, BEDC and CVB work together to tell the ‘Brookings story’
BROOKINGS – BACC … CVB … BEDC … VPC. Who can keep track of all of them?
It’s an alphabet soup of organizations, but they share a common mission and a common message: They’re the “welcome to Brookings” team.
It’s a bit more complex than that, of course, but they’re all part of the city’s “advance guard” who sell what’s unique and attractive about Brookings to businesses considering locating here, and to prospective residents and tourists.
In recent years, the BACC, BEDC and the CVB have become increasingly important to the residents of Brookings, some of whom may have only a hazy idea of what the letters stand for or the services the three agencies provide. The trio has been in the news in recent weeks, the result of a major reorganization of some of their duties and changes in leadership.
The Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce (BACC), the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the Brookings Economic Development Corporation (BEDC) are tasked, in one way or another, with making life better in their home community, says Al Heuton, who for the past five years has headed both the Chamber and the economic development arm of the nonprofit corporation.
They seem to be getting the job done.
A careful observer gets the impression that Brookings is on the cusp of something – it’s a city in transition. “Bigger and better” are the words one hears these days. No longer just “the place up the road from Sioux Falls,” the city is attracting more retail stores, new restaurants are opening and manufacturers are expanding.
A burgeoning student population at the university has helped push Brookings into fourth place in the numbers sweepstakes, and the county is already the state’s No. 2 manufacturer. Ongoing research, both public and private, holds the promise of good-paying, high-tech jobs.
More youth sports groups are coming to town to play softball or soccer or hockey, more “name” acts are showing up at the Swiftel Center, more business and professional groups are taking a look at the city as a host for their association meetings.
That kind of activity hasn’t happened all by itself, Heuton points out. Progressive business and political leaders have created the climate, of course, but the alphabet-soup group has had a hand in all of it.
The Chamber was founded here in 1938, “to promote, connect and enrich the Brookings business community.” That remains its key role today under new executive director Heidi Gullickson. The C of C welcomes newcomers, too, and offers leadership and staff training services to its members.
The BEDC is the primary recruiter for business and industry, while the Convention and Visitors Bureau does just what its name implies – it attracts conventions to the community and helps organize gatherings, and it caters to visitors of all kinds, tourists and conventioneers alike.
For most of his time in Brookings, Heuton has served as executive director of both the Chamber and BEDC, but that’s all changed this year.
“I’m going back to what I was hired to do,” says Heuton, who relinquished his Chamber duties to Gullickson earlier this year, and just two weeks ago, Jennifer Johnson was brought aboard as executive director of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
One of Heuton’s directives when he signed on was to reinvigorate both the Chamber and the CVB.
“They had eliminated the CVB board and the city had appointed the VPC (Visitor Promotion Committee), so the first thing I did was have a strategy session to look at our areas of focus –to see if things were worth the time and effort we were putting into them,” Heuton recalls.
One of Heuton’s first tasks was to revive a moribund SDSU Day at the Capital. An important link between the community and lawmakers, SDSU Day now buses more than 100 Brookings leaders to each legislative session.
It’s made a difference in Pierre, Heuton says.
He and his board also revamped the Chamber’s leadership program, changing the curriculum and bringing it back in house. It’s one of the more popular business/community programs offered in Brookings.
“And we helped establish a high level of cooperation between the Chamber and the BEDC,” Heuton adds. “We have a joint management committee which we’ve now expanded to include the CVB board.”
He’s worked, he says, “to develop a lot of relationships with the programs.”
Fulltime for BEDC
Heuton will now devote his full attention to the BEDC, which has been a high-profile operation in recent months with the Bel Brands announcement. But this agency works year-round behind the scenes to help the community prosper – chiefly through attracting new business and industry, but in a variety of other ways. It responds to business inquiries, does statistical analysis and demographic studies of the changing community and assists manufacturers seeking funding for expansion or workforce development.
One of the biggest changes in recent years has taken place with the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Although it’s been around a long time, too, the CVB has been reorganized this summer to become a more effective, more accountable agency. In fact, another “alphabet organization,” the city’s own VPC – Visitor Promotion Committee – was dissolved by the council last month and its activities incorporated into the CVB. The City of Brookings has now contracted with the Convention and Visitors Bureau to handle all of its local tourism promotion and visitor attraction initiatives.
Originally a part of the Chamber, the Convention and Visitors Bureau now stands on its own with a separate board of directors. Heuton says that back when the Chamber and the CVB were combined, the CVB sometimes got short shrift.
“In board meetings,” he says, “there was time for Chamber business, but there wasn’t enough time to discuss the visitor side of things. This new organization will allow for the focused discussion that’s needed.”
As for her new post, Johnson says, “The ultimate goal of the CVB is to promote the community of Brookings. Period. My job is going to be the acquisition, identification and training of groups, conferences and conventions.”
“A lot of events, things going on now, people don’t even know they’re happening,” she said. The CVB can work with hosts to help provide funding or promotion.
More weekday visitors
The city’s hospitality group, for example, has asked Johnson to bring more visitors to the community during the week, as opposed to the more frequent weekend events. The hoteliers want more of their rooms filled on weekdays, and the restaurateurs would like to see a steady, seven-day flow of diners.
“We’re charged with bringing new dollars to the city,” Johnson explains, so she’s making that one of her primary tasks.
The starting point for all her future work is survey work and determining just what her target markets are, Johnson says.
The new CVB director says she wants to get a three-year plan in place, “looking to accomplish things quickly to show Brookings and the city council some new things right away.”
“Brookings is the best-kept secret in South Dakota,” she says, “and that is going to be a huge part of my job – just the straight branding, awareness and marketing aspect. We need to let people know…”
The three organizations share offices in the Chamber headquarters building on Main Avenue in downtown Brookings. And while they now function as independent operations under the same corporate umbrella, their work overlaps in virtually every project they undertake. As the Chamber’s Gullickson points out, “We’re all headed in the same direction.” Pamphlets and brochures developed by the Chamber are used by CVB; demographics and other statistics produced by BEDC may be used by both the Chamber and the Convention and Visitors Bureau.
It’s not a big group, but it is producing big results. Johnson, Gullickson and Heuton all operate basically with two-person shops. A few interns help get the work out.
The success of the Chamber and its sister organizations is critical, not merely to keep the community’s economic engine well-oiled and humming, but because Brookings residents have reached into their own pockets to support them: taxpayer dollars helps fund their work. In its 2013 budget, the City of Brookings gives the Chamber a $25,000 subsidy, BEDC gets $192,000, and the Convention and Visitors Bureau will collect $420,000, most of that funding coming from “3rd B” revenues and from the pillow tax, which is earmarked for community promotion.
Each of the three organizations has a number of other sources of support, including membership dues, but the city is a major investor.
In return for its financial partnership, the city gets state and regional promotion and a professional welcome for those who come to Brookings – be they new move-ins, tourists or businesses and industries looking for a new home.
The city benefits in a big way from visitor spending and the increased taxes it collects. Take, for example, the manufacturing coup engineered by the BEDC: bringing Bel Brands to Brookings will pump $160 million a year into the local economy. The increased taxes that result will benefit everyone, helping pay for playgrounds and improved streets.
Hoping for big return
The CVB’s new director, Johnson, says that her board wants to see a $100 return for every dollar they spend.
“This is a time of refreshing for our organization,” Johnson says. “We want to hear from the community, we want to hear from businesses and get their ideas. … We want to be certain we’re serving our community …”
For her part, Gullickson says she’s delighted with the reorganization of the CVB. It will permit the Chamber to refocus on its support of and advocacy for its own member businesses.
“We can start to do a lot of partnering between the two organizations, too,” she says, as they work together to promote Brookings to visitors.
Their message? “If you’re new to Brookings, or thinking about coming here for a vacation or to make the community your home, the BACC, the BEDC and the CVB all want you to know, ‘You’re welcome here.’”
Contact Ken Curley at kcurley@-brookingsregister.com.