B Kyle is president and CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. If it's true that an organization takes on the attributes and priorities of its leader, you can find no better example than the chamber, which is stamped with Kyle's imprint.
Namely, while paid dues took a hit during the two-plus years of the COVID pandemic and workers are only beginning to return to offices, membership numbers are strong and the chamber kept active and involved.
Mainly because Kyle's way of working, and what she calls the chamber's special power, is making and strengthening personal relationships — between big companies and small.
Eye On St. Paul recently talked to Kyle about the business landscape in St. Paul and how the Chamber of Commerce sees the post-pandemic future. This interview was edited for length.
Q: How have you fared through COVID?
A: We as an organization made it through really strongly. But we really felt the impact of business challenges. We saw, and other chambers saw, a 20 to 25 percent drop in dues. We didn't drop [members]. We just didn't charge them, in the hopes that we could reconnect with them in 2022 and moving forward.
Q: How are things looking now, especially downtown?
A: It took a while, but the vibrancy is back. I was in downtown this weekend and I couldn't find a parking spot. And I had to stop for people to cross the crosswalk. It was popping. There will be a ramp-up in 2022.
Q: What did you learn about your organization these last two years?
A: You've got to deal with the next right thing — the company in front of you. Revolution starts small. How does Jim experience me, and then how does his organization experience our organization?
I get stymied when I want to shift from the work of the unit to doing big things. If you focus on the individual and the projects in front of you and you make these small adjustments, the trajectory changes. You revolutionize what the future looks like and you stay authentic. At the core of good chamber work is this authentic and individual connection.
Q: Following that theme, what does chamber membership do for me if I'm a small business? If I'm a big business?
A: That's the key. What is it that we do? What's our hedgehog? Our hedgehog is these connections.
But another defining aspect of our organization is the biggest companies in the world and the littlest companies in the world. [And] the largest companies in the world are interested in serving the small businesses. The big guys don't say, "What's in it for me?" The big guys say, "What is it that you need?"
We harness the big in service to the small. One company at a time. We created a small-business committee this year to answer that specific question. What are the organic needs that Jim needs for Jim's business to grow? [Kyle talked about programs that allow small businesses to share resources and network with large companies].
Q: What did you learn about you?
A: Be careful what you wish for, number one. Be careful if you want to be the person in power because if you are a thoughtful human with a contemplative nature, leadership means service. It's the least power-filled position in the room. If you're smart you hire people who tell you what they think and then they disagree with you ... and you have to learn to listen.
The other thing is: Pace is really important. I'm like a sled dog, I just want to run. And that can be stressful for your team and for your board. Pace and rhythm are really important. ... A lot of changes make people nervous and anxious. You need to be aware so you don't wear them out.
Q: Let's talk about public safety downtown. What do downtown businesses need to be successful?
A: The challenge in public safety is [both] experience and perception. We just had an update from the interim chief of police about how Part One crime is up significantly and it's almost exclusively in theft — such as catalytic converters. Other property crimes are down.
So what do businesses downtown need? More people downtown. More people together bring more people together. And we're beginning to see it. Energy is increasing.
We're still down maybe 20 percent in vibrancy from pre-COVID, as far as people coming downtown. We need people back in the office. Back shopping and participating. If this past weekend is any indication for how it's looking, it's a good one.
Q: I've been working from home, mostly, since March 2020 and may never go back completely. Other businesses are seeing the same thing. What does that mean for downtown?
A: I think people will find a bit of a balancing rhythm. [What we are seeing] is the conversion of Class B and C office space to housing. What was a challenge for redevelopment is turning out to be an opportunity. St. Paul could stand to have an increase in downtown residents of 20,000 people. And there is a direct relationship between how many people live downtown and how many people work downtown.
I certainly see new [commercial] development continuing. The pandemic slowed down some small development, but it didn't stop the big development. River's Edge is still underway. The county has a very assertive developer. And there are other projects that we're working on right now. Short term, its going to be a little jiggy.