Building an Alliance: A Spirit of Collaboration in St. Charles

In forming the new St. Charles Business Alliance, community leaders tap into leadership, collaboration and vision to position the city for the future.

Downtown St. Charles (Stufotog Photography photo/St. Charles Business Alliance)

The night brings a rich glow to the streetscape of downtown St. Charles. On any given weekend – and many a weekday – this busy entertainment district buzzes with activity in and around its restaurants, theaters and locally owned retailers.

It’s an environment that draws many visitors from out of town, both day and night. As traffic passes along Illinois Routes 64 and 31, people meander down the street, ramble along the Fox River, traverse through the surrounding park-like landscapes.

Tourism and entertainment are big businesses here, but they’re only part of the local economy. Retail thrives in the east and west. Residential growth is strong here, too. And then there are the myriad other kinds of businesses, serving local residents and tourists alike.

For local business and civic leaders, there’s good incentive to bring people to the city’s commercial districts and keep them engaged. It’s a process Jenna Sawicki and her team at the St. Charles Business Alliance liken to hunting (seeking visitors) and farming (engaging locals).

“We like to keep people happy locally, but also bring people from the outside to see how special St. Charles is,” she says.

In years past, such “hunting and farming” activities might have been accomplished through multiple organizations: a convention and visitors bureau to attract out-of-towners, a downtown association to promote the river district, and a Chamber of Commerce to foster business growth. Each maintained close connections with the City.

But in a world of limited resources, competition between priorities is inevitable. There are winners and losers. So, naturally, when leaders in St. Charles began noticing an overlap, they summoned a collaborative spirit and began visioning a better way of doing things.

The result, forged through plenty of soul-searching, is the St. Charles Business Alliance, a group that’s already making strides since its formation last summer. Built from a combination of the city’s Downtown Partnership and Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), this new organization is both a destination marketer and a hyperlocal engagement tool.

“We’re here to help business, tourism and the community thrive,” says Sawicki. “We say our big mission is to be advocates and help the whole community thrive, united under the same brand and marketing efforts. Our big target is to have our businesses, whether they’re big or small, continue to do well.”

This is the inside story of what it took to create a new mindset, how the major players adapted their strategies, and how a community rallied in pursuit of a common vision.

The Formation of a Vision

The conversation began with a simple enough question: How can we improve communication and collaboration between ourselves? At the table were leaders from the Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown St. Charles Partnership, the CVB and the city.

One meeting in 2016 turned into a series of follow-up meetings and deeper conversations.

Early on, the group found overlapping efforts and brands that were misaligned.

There were financial concerns, too. Both the CVB and the Downtown Partnership received funding through City taxes. The downtown group additionally benefitted from a Special Service Area (SSA) tax on downtown property owners, while the CVB received a tourism grant from the State of Illinois – dollars that were being matched with City funds.

“The grant had to be spent in very specific areas,” says Tom Donahue, who was serving as the CVB’s board president at the time. He’s now the Alliance’s board vice president.

Talk turned toward uniting the Partnership and the CVB under one umbrella.

Sawicki, then serving as director of the Partnership, was tapped to investigate whether a merger could work and how a new organization might look. She spent 18 months crunching numbers, asking questions and drafting proposals – all the while selling City Council and others on the vision.

The beloved St. Charles Scarecrow Festival, which was organized by the visitors bureau for three decades, is now organized by the Business Alliance. This past year, the team marketed to out-of-towners while also engaging locals and downtown businesses in the festival.

“Probably the ‘aha’ moment for us, as we worked through this, was realizing that we were spending money in ways where we could get a better return on investment if we worked differently,” says Donahue. It meant dropping the state grant, but doing so would provide financial flexibility.

“We looked at it from multiple ways,” says Chris Woelffer, Alliance board president. “We looked at it as a visitor coming to our town, and what would that entail? Hopefully that entails a hotel stay. But then the vision was to have those people spend time in St. Charles, versus going to another community.”

“And it was really the City’s push to say, ‘Let’s have one voice, one group that is all singing from the same songbook,” adds Sawicki.

Woelffer, who was serving as president of the Downtown Partnership’s board, worked hand-in-hand with Donahue and city leaders, including City Manager Mark Koenan and Mayor Ray Rogina, on solidifying the vision.
“The City wants to see a strong community, first and foremost, and they have seen how these organizations have been strong in the past,” says Woelffer. “They bought into the belief that a combined effort will make St. Charles even stronger. That was key.”

The Case for Change

The discovery process was intensive for Sawicki. It involved plenty of math and more than a few meetings. But it also meant setting a new standard, against which everything past, present and future would be weighed.

“We spent a lot of time saying, ‘Is it worth it?’” says Sawicki. “One of my board members always says, ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’ We use it as kind of a joke, but it’s also a guiding voice. We’d go to shows and say, ‘Did we get RFP’s out of it? Did we make good contacts that could bring big groups to St. Charles?’”

Throughout the process, Sawicki found community leaders and volunteers eager to get behind the vision.

“What surprised me the most was how open and honest all of the community groups were, and how willing they were to help us get across the finish line,” says Sawicki. “There’s a temptation to just put out the highlight reel, but everyone was really open and honest about programming and events, and what was working and what was not working. Nobody was trying to hide anything.”

Within the Partnership, she found herself re-evaluating every decision and every program. Inside the CVB, she worked to rebuild relationships with local hotels, key to pushing visitors to local attractions. She also dove into major events with the CVB, including the long-running Scarecrow Festival.
There were other, more practical considerations, too.

“Both boards needed to come to an agreement of what the new organization would look like, conceptually,” says Woelffer. “When you are agreeing to do that, you also have the legal side. You have two separate entities with bylaws and things like that. So, we brought in outside legal counsel to assist us with that, and really drawing the new bylaws for the new organization.”

For Donahue and the CVB, income became an important conversation point. Merging would nullify its receipt of an Illinois tourism grant.

“Giving up those dollars is difficult to do for anyone,” he says. “But once we laid out how we could spend the money differently, and more effectively, people’s concern about the loss of dollars dropped off, and we put together a solid plan for how we were going to provide great service and a quality product for St. Charles. So far, it’s proven to be a correct assumption on our part.”

The merger process also demonstrated where old roles, better defined, were beneficial. The Chamber of Commerce, while it was involved in early discussions, remains a separate entity with a distinct mission.

“We’re a support arm for the business community at large, and a resource connection,” says Jim Di Ciaula, Chamber President/CEO.

The Chamber’s activities remain tightly focused on its members’ needs and encompass quality programs, environments and experiences to build connections.

The Chamber is fully funded by its membership, which extends toward Campton Hills, South Elgin and West Chicago. By contrast, the Alliance remains tightly focused on St. Charles and receives taxpayer dollars. The Alliance markets the region and promotes local businesses, while the Chamber is invested in personal and professional growth for a diverse membership, reaching beyond local destinations.

“We help those businesses from a business perspective, but also we’re talking about the many other businesses that wouldn’t necessarily bring you to St. Charles,” says Di Ciaula. “We have a broader and more diverse group of businesses, so we are positioned as a business advocate.”
Woelffer thinks it’s for the better.

“St. Charles needs a really strong Chamber,” he says.

The Secret Sauce

As the merger steadily evolved from concept to reality, Sawicki and her team of four at the Downtown Partnership began working hand-in-hand with the small team at the CVB. In time, three new staff members joined.
Behind the current staff of eight is a vast network of volunteers whose work is shaping the Alliance in numerous ways.

“We call the volunteers our secret sauce,” says Woelffer. “If you measured it dollars-wise, it would be hundreds of thousands of dollars that they benefit us with, by giving their time. They’re very invested in the community, and they believe in the programming the Alliance does.”

Board members like Woelffer, CEO of Schaumburg Bank & Trust, and Donahue, general manager of the Q Center in St. Charles, work on a volunteer basis. They’re joined by four volunteer committees that provide additional feedback and guidance.

The business development and sales committee specializes in tourism and business engagement. It oversees programming, event sales and networking among local assets.

The events committee deploys volunteers behind the scenes at major festivals and events, including Scarecrow Fest and the Holiday parade.

The organization committee focuses on internal process and structures, including legal questions and employee handbooks. This group provided essential guidance as Sawicki solidified the Alliance’s organizational structure. The process involved numerous diagrams mapping how CVB and Partnership staff would share responsibilities under the new group.

By combining functions of the visitors bureau and the downtown association, the St. Charles Business Alliance is leveraging events around the city to attract both residents and out-of-towners.

“We have a member on our organization committee who is an HR professional, and she really helped us a lot,” says Sawicki. “She’s a volunteer. She came in and helped me write job descriptions and a flow chart of how everything will work.”

It wasn’t always easy. Partnership staff had always been “hyperlocal focused,” with their mission to promote downtown. The CVB team was accustomed to looking beyond their hometown. The new, larger team also required a certain formalizing of job duties – a big change from the “all hands on deck” philosophy that had reigned at the Partnership.

“I’m so lucky to have a team that still thinks like that,” says Sawicki, “but now that we have a team of eight, we can have more defined roles. Some people who were wearing seven hats are maybe now wearing four hats and can do a better job at those four hats.”

Sawicki found she had to adjust her own mindset, too.

“I was so used to being like, ‘can you do this?’ but now I have to ask, ‘Whose job is that?’” she says. “That was tricky for me. And even for myself, it was important to take things off my plate that I had been doing. I tend to be a bit of a workhorse, so now I have to rethink and say, ‘Wait a second, I’m going to give this to you because it’s part of your job.”

The Alliance’s fourth committee, the marketing team, holds the keys to this new brand. This “fun and vibrant” group is carefully crafting the Alliance’s message about St. Charles.

“You have to protect your image,” says Sawicki. “When we worked with a branding company about five years ago, the first thing they said to us is, ‘A brand is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.’ I’ve always clung onto that because I really believe it. It takes consistent branding and messaging for people to set their mindset of who we are.”

Maintaining this new brand is essential to the Alliance’s mission.

“Everything that goes out is branded,” says Sawicki. “Our Discover Your City Side brand, our logo – everything has to fit through our funnel. And the committee is very particular about making sure that everything that goes out is branded. It’s perfect.”

To some extent, the committee has taken a cue from research it did during the merger. Staff and volunteers alike took note of the ways other communities – from neighbors like Naperville to destinations like Nashville – marketed themselves to visitors. Seeking best practices became a joyful hobby, of sorts.

“I had to buy our marketing team an extra drawer to hold marketing materials, because once everyone on our marketing team and our board knew we were looking for best practices, we couldn’t stop the amount of brochures, magazines, and pamphlets and flyers people brought in,” Sawicki says.

Paying Dividends

When the merger between the St. Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Downtown St. Charles Partnership was finalized this past June, the new team’s first major event lay just on the horizon. The 34th annual Scarecrow Festival was just a few months away, and for some team members it was the first time they’d handled this local tradition – let alone an event that attracts nearly 100,000 visitors.

Working with the marketing committee, the Alliance laid out a scavenger hunt that would encourage visitors to spread beyond the festival and into local businesses. Special promotions offered additional incentive.

“We got really good feedback on that,” says Sawicki. “We also had actual scarecrows that we dropped off to all of the first-floor businesses downtown, to try and tie everybody into the event. Jeans and a Cute Top Shop put sunglasses and a scarf on theirs. Mixology put full face makeup on their scarecrow.”

The ideas are coming rapid-fire as the Alliance continues through its first full year. Sawicki and her team are finding opportunities wherever they go.

“We’re really in a discovery period right now, and we definitely are seeing success with listening and trying to focus on our businesses and hotels,” she says. “But, we’re also making sure our residents and visitors coming to St. Charles are getting an authentic St. Charles experience. We really want people to see how special our town is.”

They’ll dive even deeper into the local connection this coming year, as they release an updated visitors guide that personalizes the St. Charles experience.

“We’re spending a lot of time interviewing the owners of our businesses and getting photo shoots and telling their stories, because we really believe that everyone wants that human connection,” say Sawicki. “I want people to read it and come see the owner of the business. I want them to read it and go, ‘I need to see Leah at Kava Diem. I need to meet her.’”

The team’s hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Donahue finds there’s more excitement – among the Alliance staff and local leaders – than he can remember seeing since he joined the CVB board in 2011.

“I think everybody is realizing now that, although we’re in our infancy, the work that we’re doing with everyone is starting to pay dividends,” he says. “I think people see the opportunities behind that work, and how it might play out in the future.”

Woelffer credits Sawicki’s leadership and dedication to bringing this merger from vision to reality.

“We’re very fortunate that Jenna helped lead us through this,” he says. “It was very seamless, and having the right conversations with the right people really helped that out. Her staff worked tirelessly to make sure this became a reality, and they have picked up the torch really quickly after the merger. They have not missed a beat.”