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Expectations high as Economic Club opens season: Group sees turnaround in sponsorships, attendance

September 15, 2008

Organizers of the Economic Club of Indiana believe they'll hit a home run when their first speaker of the season, Eli Lilly and Co.'s new CEO, John Lechleiter, steps to the podium Sept. 24.

"I believe John Lechleiter will blow the socks off the place," predicted Steve Walker, who serves as club president and also is CEO of WalkerInformation.

Just a few years ago, club organizers weren't in a position to be so upbeat. Early this decade, the club witnessed a decline in membership, sponsorship and attendance for its 90-minute luncheon meetings.

The Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce ended its relationship with the not-for-profit in 2006, leaving the club with no one to administer operations and promotions.

Walker said the club conducted a survey and re-evaluated strategy, deciding to expand outside of Indianapolis. At the start of last year, it brought in the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to handle operations.

The club also partnered with WFYIFM 90.1 to broadcast its meetings and to provide the program to other public radio stations around the state.

Attendance last year averaged about 750, down from its heyday in the late 1990s when more than 1,000 people packed into a ballroom at the Convention Center. But it was up 28 percent from the 2006-2007 season, said Glenn Harkness, the Indiana Chamber's director of technical marketing.

The club also has enjoyed success on the sponsorship front. Last year, it signed up ProLiance Energy for the $20,000 title sponsorship, and Harkness said it has sold out its platinum sponsorships this year for $10,000 each.

Monthly sponsorships cost $3,500 for for-profit companies and $2,500 for notfor-profits. The sponsorships allow organizations to have their names on the club's Web site, and to display signage and other materials at the luncheons. Sponsors and those holding sustaining memberships also can attend a reception with the speaker before the luncheon. The stronger financial footing has translated into a stronger lineup of speakers. "With the growth of the club we have more flexibility with more nationally recognized speakers," Harkness said. Other upcoming speakers include Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago's Charles Evans and National Public Radio's Juan Williams. "I'm glad there is diversity in who's speaking," said Ellen Annala, a club member for 10 years and president of the United Way of Central Indiana. Club leaders who helped pull off the resurgence wanted to keep the club's rich history alive. The organization started in 1974 as a social group of business, city and community leaders. For decades, it has brought a wide range of speakers to Indianapolis, from lesser-known academics to politicians considering a run for the White House, from labor leaders to business leaders, from journalists to foreign dignitaries.

State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Boehm, one of the group's founders, fondly remembers speeches by economic titans John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman. He also recalls last September's speech by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin as "articulate and interesting."
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