Passing The Collection Basket

July 13, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — A $200,000 fundraising campaign has the possibility to parlay that money into a $20 million boost for the local economy over the coming years. And a quartet of notable business leaders began working together last week to reach the goal and meet the potential.

Casey Wondergem, John Canepa, Donald Maine and J.C. Huizenga are co-chairing a committee looking to raise $200,000 over the next few months from the private sector. All donations will go to the Convention and Visitors Bureau to help meet the expenses to host what CVB Executive Vice President George Helmstead has eagerly called the “Super Bowl’ of conventions for the city.

The Religious Conference Management Association, the largest religious meeting held in the nation annually, will bring 1,200 delegates to DeVos Place on Jan. 27 and they will stay for four days. The meeting is a key one for the bureau because about 500 of the RCMA delegates are meeting planners who book about 1,000 religious meetings each year, and the remaining delegates are involved in the religious-meeting industry in other ways.

Helmstead has repeatedly said that a successful RCMA convention might lead to more religious conferences in the city and result in an economic benefit for the city that could range from $15 million to $20 million over the next few years. But the bureau is in need of some assistance to meet the meeting’s expenses, and that’s why the committee went to work last week.

“They’re about $200,000 short when it comes to what the organization is going to put into the conference and what the CVB is going to put into the conference. They need the money for things like audio-video rental, advanced publicity and advertising to get more people to attend, and this comes to about $200,000,” said Wondergem, who agreed to put the committee together.

“Joe Tomaselli (Amway Hotel Group president and CVB board member) said to me, ‘Why don’t you head this up?’ and I haven’t had a fundraiser for a couple weeks,” he added with a laugh. “So I got John Canepa, Don Maine, myself and J.C. Huizenga to chair the committee of about 40 community leaders.”

Wondergem told the Business Journal he feels confident the committee will meet its goal.

“We’ve got a prospects list and I think I can make the $200,000. If I can, it will be a big lift to the convention bureau,” he said. “Canepa, I, Don Maine and J.C. Huizenga think we can do it.”

Although Wondergem said summertime is typically not a good time to raise money, he didn’t think it would take very long for the committee to reach its goal.

“With the group that I’ve put together, I hope we can get it done in a month,” he said.

Contributions can also be made by calling CVB Vice President Janet Korn at 233-3545.

The RCMA board of directors toured the city and its convention center recently; the visit was the first look at the city for many members.

“As I arrived in Grand Rapids, what struck me was the fantastic combination of charm and choice. How can a meeting planner not fall in love with the city’s beautiful ambiance and the choices for conducting meetings? The more you see, the more you want to see,” said Harry Schmidt, board member and president of Christian Life College, in a release.

“Grand Rapids has a defined excellence not found in many other places. I was impressed by both the city and the welcoming community of people I met. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit,” added Rev. Thomas Jackson, RMCA board president.

Wondergem said he is excited about having the RCMA meet here. Almost 15 million delegates affiliated with RCMA organizations attended conferences in the country last year. At least that many are expected to do the same this year.

“Grand Rapids has been billed as an ideal place for religious conferences. In the summer time, they all bring their families, and West Michigan offers them a lot. And a recent USA Today named Grand Rapids as a center for Christian commerce,” he said.

“I want to do whatever I can to make Grand Rapids a destination.”

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