On June 1, Dawn Sperr stepped down from her role as president of the I-94 West Chamber of Commerce after a 2 1/2 year run that saw expanded membership, improvements to the Chamber’s services and events, and even the launching of an official podcast.
“I wanted cities and businesses to see us doing more than what they might expect from a chamber,” Sperr said. “The history of chambers is, ‘we plan the events,’ but we are focused on small business development, education components and connecting leaders to leaders.”
Sperr, who has worked for 10 years as chief operations officer and business manager for her husband’s Rogers-based mortgage firm, Equity Source Mortgage, joined the Chamber’s board of directors in January 2017 and before that year was over, had the opportunity to step up and lead. The unexpected departure of the previous president in October 2017 marked the beginning of Sperr’s time as president.
“My background is in fixing problems and making things work better,” Sperr said. “I said [of the presidency], ‘Let me take a stab at it.’ After 2 1/2 years, I feel the [Chamber] is in a strong place.”
The I-94 West Chamber is active in 10 communities: Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Maple Grove, Rogers, Otsego, Dayton, Corcoran, Hanover, St. Michael and Albertville. When Sperr took over, there were approximately 320 members; today, that figure has jumped to 457. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Sperr had made a presentation to Osseo about joining as the 11th community, a step she expects Osseo will take once things settle down.
“We were able to grow the membership quite significantly,” Sperr said.
During her tenure, Sperr worked closely with director of membership and events Annette Belding and communications director Karen Barta toward a goal of “elevating” all aspects of the Chamber’s operations “just a notch,” as she put it. That “elevation” included extra flair and entertainment at Chamber events such as State of the Cities and improvements to networking events and the Chamber’s marketing materials. One of Sperr’s biggest goals was to ensure that everyone involved with the Chamber, whether they were new or had been involved for year, felt like they were a part of the organization.
“We want to make people feel like they’re welcome,” Sperr said. “At some chambers and other organizations, you might come in and think there’s going to be a plethora of people that are going to come talk to you and you find that isn’t the case. I swore I’d never let people feel that way. I always wanted new people to feel like they were part of the group immediately, that they were welcome and they had value.”
Sperr led the way in starting a Chamber podcast, initially called “Eye on the I-94 Region” and more recently retitled to “Right Now,” which focuses on member spotlights, Chamber events and other features. Listeners may tune in to episodes at i94westrightnow.podbean.com.
Another “conversation starter” is the group of five Bigfoot statues that go “on tour” to different member businesses throughout the year.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of businesses put some of the Chamber’s operations on hold. Social distancing rules make things difficult for what Sperr describes as “an organization that gathers people together.”
Networking groups continue through teleconferencing, but other gatherings, fundraisers and events have had to be canceled. An annual golf tournament at Fox Hollow in St. Michael has been pushed back to Sept. 29.
“[COVID-19] has effected how we raise extra funds and will continue to impact how we do things because of how it effects cash flow,” Sperr said, who also noted that membership dues cover less than half of the Chamber’s budget, which makes fundraising vital.
“We might have to do with a little less this year,” Sperr said.
When the pandemic first struck, Sperr voluntarily furloughed herself, at first for two weeks and then for a month. After spending her new free time with her family, Sperr decided it was time to put more of her focus in that direction. She and her husband have two daughters, one a rising college senior and one who just graduated from Rogers High School via the class of 2020’s “drive-through” commencement a few weeks ago.
“It hadn’t been my intention to step down,” Sperr said. “That was a hard decision for me; I felt as if I so much more I could do. I even still dream about things I wanted to accomplish and what was going to come next, so it’s a little sad for me. I know where my focus should be though, and that’s family.”
Sperr plans to remain involved with the Chamber as a member and has also been working as a consultant recently.
“I might be gone, but I’m not gone,” Sperr said. “I’ll still be around the chamber and you’ll still hear me; I can’t stay quiet.”
While she transitioned out of her role as president, she offered her assistance to board chairman Greg Anzelc, who is taking over as interim president. Anzelc is also a host of “Right Now” along with fellow board member Sarah Becker.
“I’m proud of where I was able to contribute and what the Chamber has been able to do for the communities it represents,” Sperr said. “I am very proud of the improvements and growth we had made and am excited to see where the next great minds take it.”
Member business listings, events and other information can be found at the Chamber’s website, i94westchamber.org.