“We’re in the Business of Supporting Business”: 50 Years of the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce

As the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce celebrates 50 years of service, we take a closer look at how the Chamber has helped create a business-friendly climate in Altoona.

In 1970, as the Stones toured Europe and the Beatles disbanded, a group of Altoona business owners and community leaders gathered around a card table in a dusty basement. Altoona was hardly a dot on the map back then, mostly farm fields and a two-lane highway on the outskirts of the Des Moines metro.

But these friends and neighbors had a vision. Where others saw empty fields, they saw potential—the potential to grow a thriving community where businesses could succeed and families could be comfortable and happy. Who knows? Maybe there would even be an amusement park.

But that kind of community doesn’t just spring up from the soil. Bringing their vision to life would take hard work, careful planning and coordination. They couldn’t work toward that vision on their own. They had to work together.

That day, around the card table, the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce was founded.

Fifty years later, the organization has grown to some 400 members. And while Altoona has evolved to become Iowa’s entertainment destination and a growing hub for industry, the Chamber’s purpose has remained largely the same: to connect local businesses to the community, help their members grow and thrive, and bring their vision of Altoona to life.

Supporting the Mom ‘n’ Pop Shops

To understand the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce, it helps to understand just how difficult it is to run a small business.

Many small business owners create a business based on their passion, whether it’s cooking, creating artwork or running a general store stocked with hand-picked goods. However, as small business owners quickly learn, passion often isn’t enough. To run a successful business, you need marketing savvy, connections, a grasp on numbers. You have to manage inventory, employees and finances. You have to handle emergencies and stay current on market trends and coordinate with the business next door. If you own a coffee shop, coffee is just the beginning.

Part of what makes the Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce so valuable is that it helps local business owners manage all the ‘little’ things that turn out to be not-so-little when you add them up.

Most of the 400 Chamber members are small-business owners. As the owner of a small business, you often have to do things outside your primary skillset. You tend to find yourself wading into unfamiliar territory. The Chamber helps members overcome these challenges through a variety of Business 101 courses, touching on everything from marketing and finance to HR and management. They turn passionate entrepreneurs into savvy business-owners.

Building a Business-Friendly Community

When we think of business, we often think of competition. And while the businesses of Altoona may have some healthy competition, the Chamber recognizes that small, local enterprises are stronger when they work together. That brings us to the core of the Chamber mission: creating a supportive network of local businesses and connecting this network to our residential community.

To this end, the Chamber hosts frequent networking events, such as ribbon cuttings and Women of Vision—a program designed for local women in business. These events bring together entrepreneurs with common interests and challenges, creating a venue where they can share what they have learned and ask questions that only other business owners will understand.

But connecting entrepreneurs is only half the equation. The Chamber also focuses their efforts on local residents and visitors – the customers – and orchestrates events that connect them with Altoona businesses, such as the new annual Farm to Table dinner or the Wine and Craft Beer Fest.

These events are fun, but they’re also important. They foster an environment where people continually engage with the businesses around them, and businesses get valuable face time with their customers. That’s especially important for owners of new businesses, who are under pressure to build a loyal customer base.

A New Vision for Olde Town

The Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce is headquartered in Olde Town, the historic district of Altoona. Today, Olde Town is a cute but secluded corner of the city, in the shadow of a rusted water tower and an old cannery. There’s a barber shop, the Altoona Historical Society and a handful of small businesses. It’s usually quiet in Olde Town. But it may not stay that way for long.

We recently met with Melissa Horton, the Executive Director of the Chamber, and she described her vision for the future of Olde Town. (You can see our video interview above, featuring Melissa along with Events Coordinator Maaike Hendrikson.)

“We think it has great potential, maybe even an East Village-like vibe,” she said. “There are third-generation buildings here. A bike trail runs through it. I think there’s the potential for a kind of outdoor beverage garden, a really cute bakery, a coffee shop, maybe a communal space for artists.

“We have a lot of creative people around here. How cool would it be to open a venue where they could sell their wares and be supported that way?”

Horton, who grew up on a farm south of town, is deeply rooted in the Altoona community. In fact, her grandfather worked at the old cannery in the 1930’s.

“That building (the cannery) would make an awesome restaurant or bar,” she said.

Residents won’t have to wait long to see what the City and the Chamber are planning for Olde Town. This summer, as part of a downtown assessment, the Chamber sent out a survey to gauge the community’s interest in the area. They received 575 responses, the most enthusiastic response that Melissa can recall from her ten years at the Chamber.

This fall, the Chamber is hosting a new Farm to Table event in Olde Town, on Second Street. There, the results of the downtown assessment will be unveiled. Meanwhile, the City is planning to improve the area’s streets, and local business owners are already buzzing about the project.

Olde Town may be changing, but what’s happening there isn’t exactly new. It’s the kind of coordinated hard work between the City, the Chamber, local residents and business owners that has defined the present and is shaping the future of Altoona. It’s the next step in a legacy that began long ago.

“I see great potential here,” Horton told us.


Join the Movement

Altoona is a growing community just east of Des Moines, with big plans for the future. We have a business-friendly environment for those in retail, entertainment, logistics, manufacturing and data. Click here to learn more about Iowa’s rising star.