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Dues ex machina 

With options few, the Chamber of Commerce hits up its members for a lift out of trouble

How do you get blood from a turnip? The Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce might have a few pointers.

Amid this economic downturn, the chamber has persuaded 69 businesses and agencies to contribute nearly $1 million, beyond regular membership dues, to keep the organization afloat.

Money from its three-year "public campaign," which began last year, will retire debt and put the business advocacy group on firmer footing. The next three-year campaign, for 2011 to 2013, has already launched.

"Those extra dollars have allowed us to sustain and eventually build our staff capacity to do good work on behalf of the business community," says chamber president and CEO Dave Csintyan. "You wouldn't get there with just membership dollars."

The economic downturn prompted the chamber to cut its fundraising goal from $1.5 million to $1 million. Among the biggest givers is The Broadmoor, despite the five-star resort having seen business slide in the months since insurance giant AIG, which took billions in federal bailout money, was caught throwing parties at a posh California resort.

"It cascaded into something that affected all hotels and resorts across America," says Broadmoor president Steve Bartolin.

Some lost business has been offset by family vacations, but not enough to prevent a recent 22-employee layoff, plus the loss of other positions from a workforce of 1,800 through attrition.

Bartolin says The Broadmoor stepped up to become one of the chamber's chief donors, committing to $25,000 annually from 2008 to 2010.

"Having been a member of the chamber since its inception, we feel strongly a good chamber is important for Colorado Springs," Bartolin says. "They were in trouble. You don't want your chamber to fail."

City-owned Memorial Health System also stepped up, pledging up to $25,000 a year for three years after Memorial trustee Vic Andrews, also a chamber board member, pitched the plan in March. The donation is dependent on Memorial's ability to pay, and Memorial paid $20,000 this year.

Another city enterprise, Colorado Springs Utilities, declined. Spokesman Steve Berry says it's "just not the appropriate time, considering the current economic climate and our other budget demands."

The campaign arose after the chamber borrowed more than $300,000 several years ago to sustain operations. Looking for a new business model, it surveyed chambers and found that groups serving cities the size of Colorado Springs don't rely on dues and special events alone.

The chamber hired Columbus, Ohio-based Resource Development Group to set up the program and get it rolling, paying it $164,610 last year, IRS records show.

Csintyan says the money is enabling the chamber to coordinate such projects as a Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which will open soon to help small businesses qualify for federal contracts.

Besides hitting up members, Csintyan notes the chamber reduced its rent by up to 60 percent when it moved from the ground floor of the FirstBank Building (formerly Holly Sugar) to the seventh and eighth floors of the Exchange National Bank Building on the southwest corner of Tejon Street and Pikes Peak Avenue.

"This is not all about the chamber getting more money," he says. "It's about keeping our expenses in line."

Especially since membership dues slipped by about 7 percent, IRS filings show, from about $928,000 in 2007 to $860,500 last year.

Csintyan hopes the investor list grows to 100, but that assumes none will fall off of the list. Says Bartolin: "We're in it for three years — 2010 is our third year. I can't say beyond that."

zubeck@csindy.com

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