December 5, 2005 updated March 10, 2016
From Tunnicliff’s to Testimony A Brief History of CHAMPS.
CHAMPS welcomes your stories, quotes, anecdotes and reminiscences from all members! Please feel free to email yours to the CHAMPS Office.
A table at Tunnicliff’s was the genesis for an organization that today has high visibility and credibility within the Capitol Hill community and DC government and makes significant contributions to the Hill’s business and larger communities.
A survey of CHAMPS’ past presidents by Gretchen Sherrill, MSW Interactive Design, shed light on how the organization came to be, how it grew, some of its finest hours and challenges and what it should do in the future.
“My recollection is that a DC agency came to Tunnicliff’s (then owned by Drew Scallan) to talk about a business organization in 1983,” says Steve Cymrot, “Keith Fagan of the Rag (as it was then called) encouraged people to come. Shortly thereafter, an effort was undertaken to form such an entity without the assistance of DC and independent of its proposal. A series of meetings was held at Jack Mahoney’s office (where most good meetings were held in those days). Attending on a regular basis were Jack Mahoney, Don Denton, Larry Quillian, Drew Scallan and myself. Also contributing were Barbara Held, Keith Fagan, Jim Didden and probably several others.”
That core group spread the word.
It reached Frank Reed. “I started a real estate development business on the Hill in 1983. I was asked to join by founders Jack Mahoney, Don Denton and Steve Cymrot,” says Frank, who cites one of his important achievements as “showing up!”
And it reached Linda Barnes.
“I heard about it from Jack Mahoney and others in real estate (not my competitors),” she recalls. “I didn’t at first see the benefit in joining. It seemed an extravagance for a new business counting every penny. I began to see that to not join meant I would miss business I could otherwise get. I also came to believe that I ‘owed’ it to the business community. It was my obligation to be participating. I believe that for the first few years I paid the dues out of my own pocket.”
Giving back is an enduring CHAMPS attraction.
“Living on the Hill at the time, we heard about CHAMPS through the Hill Rag and talking to business owners,” said Dennis Bourgault, who joined in 1994. “We joined and became involved in order to learn more about doing business on the Hill and network with other business owners. It was also a good way to give back something to the community.”
From Volunteers to Professional Staff
At first, the Capitol Hill Business Association, as it was known then, was a volunteer-only organization. The original group decided it wanted more than a volunteer organization.
“The goal was to have 40 members paying $250 each before we launched the organization,” says Steve Cymrot. “Barbara Held wrote the first check…as she usually did. With the collection of the 40th check, a meeting was held in the basement of the Methodist Church at 5th and Pennsylvania. By-laws, drafted by Noel Kane, were approved.” Steve says the name became the Capitol Hill Business and Professionals, then the Capitol Hill Association of Businesses and Professionals. “That finally morphed into the ‘Capitol Hill Association of Merchants and Professionals’ in order to get a snappy acronym,” he recalled.
Under Steve’s tenure as president, the organization grew to about 140 members. “We passed 200 while Don Denton was president,” says Steve.
Growth wasn’t always easy.
Jim Didden, who was the first treasurer and later served as president, reports, “I began my term as president with CHAMPS in a financial crisis. A deficit that had been represented as $5,000 turned out to be $12,500.” By the end of Jim’s tenure, though, he was able to report to the Board, “Not only have we been able to achieve an operating surplus for the first time in the history of this organization. During the year we kept all our programs going and paid a substantial amount of back taxes in addition to fulfilling our obligation to the CHAMPS Foundation.” Jim’s tenure was also marked by happier events – the health insurance program, Shop Capitol Hill First promotions and the first Annual Capitol Hill Symposium. With Jim’s leadership, CHAMPS established dialogue with Hines Jr. High and Pennsylvania Ave. development, interceded in the Ellen Wilson projects and began discourse with Alphonzo Jackson, then head of D.C. Public Housing. (Mr. Jackson is the Former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.)
Synergies, Symposia and Snowflakes
According to the past presidents, CHAMPS’ benefits and contributions have been many and varied.
Steve Cymrot cited bringing cohesiveness to the business community as a significant achievement. “Business owners and professionals have come to know each other better and to do business with each other,” he says. He added that launching Barracks Row Main Street, the Business Improvement District (BID) and the Capitol Hill Community Foundation are also CHAMPS accomplishments. “CHAMPS was seen, and still is, as part of the community effort to improve Capitol Hill…Most of us lived and worked in the community and wore many hats. Development issues were considered in a larger overall context since we, as residents, would be affected by bad over development. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Had the opposite occurred, the history of CHAMPS and the Hill community would have been very different.”
Dennis agrees. He numbers the Foundation, BID, and the forum for networking as accomplishments. He added that testifying before the DC Council on relevant legislation, recognizing outstanding businesses, sponsoring the Holiday snowflakes and upgrading the website are also significant.
So does Linda. “Its (CHAMPS) testimony is highly valued, I believe, on issues affecting the governance of the city. Small things like banners and snowflakes go a long way to providing cohesion and life to our community.”
Frank Reed agrees on the snowflakes. He also cites prevention of reconstruction of the last remaining billboard on Capitol Hill at 6th and Pennsylvania, planting trees in the Pennsylvania Ave. median strip from 7th St. to 3rd St. and increased commercial zoning.
Communication is Key
All agree on the importance of communications and programs that benefit members.
Says Steve Cymrot, “Communications with members at a professional level is very important. Assessing existing programs in terms of the impact they are now having is also important.”
Frank Reed echoes the thought. “It (CHAMPS) must have relevant, useful and meaningful programs for the benefit of the membership.”
“Personalization and consistency of a good quality newsletter,” was one of Linda Barnes’ favorite achievements during her tenure. Dennis also noted publishing the Capitol Hill Business Quarterly and the Map as achievements of CHAMPS. Jim Didden notes, “communications with members should always be a priority,” and says that “the newsletters we did were the best ever and advertising allowed us to put them out at virtually no cost.” He adds, “I am convinced that we must continue a forum and seminar program for the benefit of our members.”
Past is Prologue
Solid, rooted, community foundation. A history of good people working hard for their community. Significant, visible achievements. Could there be a better prologue for CHAMPS future?