The Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has been an advocate, resource and friend for businesses small and large in the Historic Northeast for 25 years, including the unique and diverse business district that the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District (CID) encompasses. Both are headed up by Bobbi Baker Hughes, president and CEO of the Chamber and manager of the CID.
“I think that the Chamber’s mission is to help our businesses,” Baker Hughes said. “The year 2020, the Chamber’s mission was tweaked just a little bit to help our businesses, not only survive, but to thrive. Through these pandemic times of 2020, we did things that we’d never done before, like everybody else, but it really brought us so much closer to our businesses and they to us.”
The year 2020 posed unique challenges for an organization that focuses on networking, gathering to celebrate and hosting community meetings, forums and panels.
In addition to taking on some back burner projects, the Chamber is looking at updating its strategic plan, which Baker Hughes said is not an overnight process. Before that laborious process can begin, she must look back at the past year before deciding how to plan for the future.
The Chamber’s annual Beads, Beans and Booze (BB&B) at the American Jazz Museum is typically planned for Fat Tuesday in February, but for 2021, they are considering how to proceed. Although it makes planning crazy, Baker Hughes said she thrives in crazy, and has been planning for this her whole life.
“We can’t really let people forget about our BB&B, so you have to do something virtual, which is nothing at all like what we’re used to doing,” Baker Hughes said. “We need to be thinking about it like right now. And that’s in February. Then, our Taste & Tour typically is in September. This year, no September. Will there be a September next year? So do we plan for it both ways?”
They have focused their efforts on helping businesses keep their doors open, delivering signage, masks, sanitizer and gloves to protect both employees and patrons. She said the Chamber felt responsible for helping them as a business, but also as a family.
“They’re not just businesses, they are our neighbors,” Baker Hughes said. “They are our community, the people that own those businesses and the people that work in those businesses.”
With the help of the Chamber, they were all able to keep their staff employed and keep things “rolling” while wearing face masks and staying six feet apart, and although they were physically distanced, business owners built closer relationships than ever before with each other and the Chamber.
“This pandemic has caused us to slow down and focus – even though we’re busier and going faster than we ever have – but slow down and focus on what’s really important, and that’s the people,” Baker Hughes said.
The only Chamber businesses that have closed during the pandemic were for well-deserved retirements.
“When you roll down the Avenue, what you see – the businesses that have closed in this past year are folks that have been in business for 40 and 50 and 60 years, they’ve retired, they’re celebrating,” Baker Hughes said.
“They’ve retired during these pandemic times, and not because they were forced to. It was just time, it was time to get out and enjoy life a little bit. They deserve that retirement, they’ve worked long and hard and 2020 will bring celebration to all three of those families. I think that’s what they’ve worked their whole lives for.”
Those include Askew Inn that Andy and Bill Mortallaro operated for decades and Joe’s Barber Shop on the Avenue, where Joe Vento cut hair for four generations of police officers. Though Snyder’s Grocery Store is closing, new local investors are coming in to renovate and replace with an international grocer.
When the CARES Act was first approved and dollars became available locally, Community Business Ambassadors were out talking to every business on the Avenue. Several Northeast businesses were recipients of grant funds to help them get over the hump, something the Chamber staff feels very privileged to have been able to facilitate.
The Chamber of Commerce has approximately 125 member businesses, and the Independence Avenue Community Improvement District (CID) has 99 member businesses. Not necessarily all of them Chamber members, and not all of the Chamber members are CID members. Chamber members come from throughout the Kansas City area because they want to support the businesses that are here in this community, Baker Hughes said, adding that it is difficult to describe the businesses she and the Chamber serve in Northeast because there is such a variety.
“I think we use the word diverse way too often, but in this community, I mean, they’re all so very different, and yet the same, because they are family – some of them are blood family, some of them are family from other countries,” she said.
Baker Hughes likes to think the two organizations work together seamlessly, because they’re working with people, products and services.
“The CID is a geographic footprint, it’s a district, and the Chamber is a broader, wider brush than the district,” Baker Hughes explained. “The CID is a political subdivision that has a very specific footprint, so we don’t treat it any different than we do Chamber members because the CID, that entity, that political subdivision, is a member of the Chamber.”
For the CID members, facade rebate programs are just one thing they receive assistance on from the organization. That is a 50% rebate up to $5,000 for storefront facade improvements like signage and paint.
“Once you cross the threshold and you get to know the people, then you don’t want to shop anywhere else. Why would I?” She asked. “That’s our challenge. How do we make something so beautiful on the inside get a glimmer of hope on the outside? That’s one of our goals for the upcoming year is doing some window dressing. That will pull in new customers and really elate the old customers, because everybody likes to shop beautifully.”
The two also do co-marketing with their businesses through the Northeast News, featuring CID businesses on the center spread each week, and featuring a Chamber business monthly.
“That has built a lot of loyalty with our businesses, as well as with our residents, the consumers, because it’s been able to share what our stores are about,” Baker Hughes said. “So, we have those advertising dollars that we have focused on those businesses in that footprint, and I think our businesses are in total agreement that that’s a major investment in our community, both for the residents and for the businesses because now they get to meet one another and start doing that business. You start to see that people are talking about where they can go to get cool stuff in our community.”
The Chamber hosts classes on social media marketing, which is essential to the success of any small business in 2020. They advise them to respond to both positive and negative reviews online, and to welcome back return customers.
“So, that I think is just really important for all of our businesses, how to better understand how to market your product or services via social media,” Baker Hughes said.
The Chamber’s small staff, although they each have specialties, does whatever needed to get the job done, Baker Hughes said.
Rebecca Koop, a local artist that Baker Hughes calls her right-hand lady, works with membership and coordinates monthly luncheons and Coffee on the Corridor, which are now using a hybrid in-person and virtual approach.
“We’ve gotten many compliments on the fact that we have both the Zoom meetings, as well as the live, and bring the two of them together,” she said. “We have plenty of physical distancing. We can provide a comfortable, safe space for up to 15 people here, and those that so choose to venture out usually get fed pretty well.”
Lonnie Clark is one of two urban planners the Chamber and CID have. He is going to be working with the Independence Avenue and Prospect intersection, and managing the Choice Neighborhood Initiative Facade Grant in 2021. Mike Spady, the other urban planner, works with the 12 Urban Street Ambassadors to, among many other things, pick up the 600 pounds a week of “flying debris” that is collected on the Avenue each year. He and his crew focus on side projects like the alley cleaning, where his crews pick up 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of garbage per year. They plant flowers, shovel snow, and do all the things in between.
“It’s very difficult for a business owner that’s a mom-and-pop shop to leave their cash register to walk away from their store, and do a perimeter check for trash on their property,” Baker Hughes said. “It’s difficult for them to see that on the northwest corner they have graffiti that they don’t see because when they drive into work they come in from the southeast corner. So they’re the eyes and ears out there on the Avenue, as are the Avenue Angels we contract with Titan Protection Services.”
Rol Deng, a Community Business Ambassador, spends his time conducting outreach to businesses on the Avenue, getting them involved by educating them on Google and Facebook, and giving them the tools they need to work through this pandemic – whether it be signage or contact information.
For 20 years, the Chamber was in the UMB Bank on Independence Avenue. At their new location, where they’ve been for five years, in a storefront near Independence and Montgall Avenue, their presence has been much stronger and they now have handicap access and parking.
Baker Hughes calls the Independence Avenue Corridor and surrounding businesses the best of both worlds because of the products that are available here. She estimates that 80% of the businesses the Chamber serves are owned by people that came from other parts of the world in the last two generations.
“I know that many of our stores here bring customers in from basically a four state region, because there’s product here they can’t get where they are,” Baker Hughes said. “Bringing people in as a destination to our international marketplace is what our goal is; we have two different market niches, and we try to work it from both angles.”
“I’m really proud of what our team does,” Baker Hughes said. “They work hard to try to make it better for everybody else.”