Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce has been promoting the city's merits longer than the city has been around

Civic cheerleaders

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The Winnipeg business community has always had a bit of a reputation for hitting above its weight class.

For instance, when the likes of J.A. Ashdown and A.G.B. Bannatyne organized the Board of Trade in the spring of 1873, it was eight months before the city itself was incorporated.

"We like to remind the city that we were here first," joked Dave Angus the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce's affable CEO.

The chamber is celebrating its 140th anniversary today at a sold-out event featuring popular comedian Rick Mercer.

The chamber is flush with cash, BOLD (its latest brand) in its advocacy for the city and its business community and boasting a growing membership base that ranks it as one of the five largest chambers in the country despite the fact Winnipeg is not one of the five largest cities in the country.

Angus said the spirit in which the chamber was formed -- business people getting together to support each other and the community -- is still its mandate.

When the chamber's lease at its old fifth-floor space at 167 Lombard Ave. was up a few years ago, it chose to move into a street-level storefront space on a block of Portage Avenue that had epitomized a boarded-up, down-on-its-heels downtown.

"We felt it was a way that we could do our part in downtown revitalization," Angus said. "Also, it allowed more exposure to the chamber from a public perspective."

It's now a tenant in a fully leased Paris Building, next door to a fully renovated Avenue Building that's become Portage Avenue's first apartment building on a block that's come to life.

During the years, the chamber moved many times, including from its long ago address in the old city hall. It moved from 177 Lombard Ave., which is still called the Chamber of Commerce building, to 167 Lombard Ave. because of a fire. The move to its current location marked the end of the chamber's career as the operator of a dining room club facility.

Now, the $2-million per year operation derives more and more revenue from its luncheon events -- more than $500,000 in 2012 -- in addition to close to $1 million in membership dues from its 2,050 members.

Its ability to organize events such as today's with more than 800 tickets sold, is turning the chamber into arguably one of the busiest event promoters in town, hosting about 90 events per year with average attendance of about 350, up from 250.

Angus credits the chamber's success and relevancy to the broad and deep pool of expertise from which it can tap resources from across the business spectrum.

Its partnerships and association with Winnipeg businesses has a very successful legacy.

The Winnipeg chamber was the first to introduce a chamber-member group insurance package in the '70s thanks to the work of Arthur Johnston, who was an independent life insurance salesman at the time and the chairman of the chamber.

Other chambers started inquiring about it and 10 years later that product was so successful his son Dave formed Johnston Group to administer the program.

"The chamber group insurance program has gone from 150 companies and -- knock on wood -- through good luck or good management it's grown substantially," said Dave Johnston, president and owner of Johnston Group Inc.

There are now 900 chambers offering the program with more than 30,000 firms participating.

"Chambers did it before but they all did it on their own and it was hard to make it work," Johnston said. "My father's concept was, if you get a whole bunch of chambers then there is strength in numbers."

Johnston Group has grown into a substantial presence in the corporate community in Winnipeg with more than 150 employees with a sizable piece of its book of business as a result of its chamber association.

It's a good example of the chamber's ability to serve as a vehicle through which citizens can show leadership and build something special.

One of Angus's favourite examples of that is the chamber-sponsored Canad Inns Winter Wonderland at Red River Exhibition Park.

An active chamber member, Gordon Kraushar, saw a Christmas-light exhibition in Regina when he was there in the '90s speaking to their chamber of commerce about the telecommunications business.

"I just thought it would be perfect for Winnipeg," Kraushar said.

He took the idea to the chamber, there was some investigation as to where it might work and eventually Red River Exhibition Park was chosen. Canad Inns took on the sponsorship and it's become an annual event since 2000.

The chamber's credibility as an advocate for issues such as Sunday shopping (back in the '50s it promoted Monday shopping), taxation issues and its recent encouragement for "bolder" public policy is not something easily attained.

"We have credibility because we has such history with the issues and the patience that an the organization like the chamber can have because it's been around for 140 years," said Angus. "We will wait you out!"

martin.cash@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2013 B4

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