BY KAILEY PICKERING, For Sentinel Colorado
AURORA | Before Buckley launched planes as an Air Force Base, before shoppers could exit to the Aurora Mall from I-225 or before E-470 was even a thing, Kevin Hougen led the Aurora Chamber of Commerce.
Hougen has led the chamber as president with a passion for small business in Aurora since 1999. He will pass the reins to Naomi Colwell on Sept. 1.
Hougen started in 1996 as the vice president of sales for the chamber. Before that, he worked at Frontier Airlines and at an insurance agency. After that, he ran a moving and storage business for 12 years.
“That has helped me really reflect on the challenges of small businesses,” Hougen said.
It inspired him to help other business owners in the growing Aurora community.
The mission of the chamber and Hougen has remained unchanged during his tenure.
He enthusiastically explained that to make this difference, the chamber upholds the three c’s: being a catalyst for businesses, a convener to bring people together and a champion for the community.
Hougen built a network of connections within the Aurora community and the chambers of other communities.
“We really are a region of economic development and chambers that work really well together,” Hougen said.
How Hougen has maintained those relationships and implemented decades of advocacy has changed as much as the world’s technology.
“Thirty years ago, if I would have asked someone, ‘do you have a mouse?’,’’ Hougen said, “people would say, ‘You mean a mouse in my house?’”
With shifting technology came changes in communication. Hougen described how the chamber adjusted styles as technologies evolved. Once limited to faxes, mail and eventually email, the chamber’s communication strategy now aims to reach every member using a variety of platforms. The chamber has print publications, email newsletters and social media to capture each audience member.
But advocating for the needs of businesses has only been part of the chamber’s mission.
Hougen and his team addressed communitywide needs in Aurora, initiating projects to prepare for the future amid the community’s growth.
One of those projects was shoring up commitment to Aurora’s share of the metro Denver light rail. Voters agreed to fund “Fastracks” in 2004, and the chamber was a staunch proponent of the plan.
The need for mass transit and how that would impact the economy naturally aligned with Hougen’s chamber.
Likewise, other iconic projects cemented the chamber’s mission and the city’s future.
Those include, establishing Buckley first as an Air Force base, and now as a Space Force Base; procuring funding commitments for E-470’s Aurora section in the 1990s; and working to persuade the state to help fund a badly needed I-225 interchange at Alameda, critical to the viability of what was then the Aurora Mall, now the Town Center of Aurora.
Hougen didn’t accomplish all this alone. He said success came from having “put together a dedicated, working team.”
Many of the chamber’s staff started as involved members of the chamber.
“I’d say about 99% of our employees have been members of the chamber before we hired them, and they believed in our mission,” Hougen said. He created a team who believed in the organization’s values.
“Under Kevin’s leadership, we were probably one of the most stable chambers in the state of Colorado, maybe the western United States,” Colwell said. “He’s left a great legacy in regards to us being successful.”
Colwell has worked at the chamber since 1999. She was a member of the chamber when she worked with the finance company AVCO. Colwell served as the marketing and events director until 2017, when she left to become president of the Brighton Chamber of Commerce.
In 2019 she returned to Aurora to lead the Aurora Police Foundation, created after the 2012 Aurora theater shooting to support Aurora police officers.
By 2021 she became the chamber’s finance director. She has been serving as the interim president since Hougen’s leave was announced on July 1.
Colwell said Hougen leads according to his staff’s strengths. She said Hougen worked with her talent for event planning and encouraged her to attend the Western Association of Chamber Executives training; an organization that offers professional development.
After completing the three-year training, Colwell accepted the position of president of the Brighton Chamber of Commerce in 2017. The position held its challenges, and Colwell values the experience for showing her different aspects of leading a chamber.
“I think that that actually helped me a lot,” Colwell said. “So that I could see some of the different elements that when I worked for Kevin before, I did not get to see.”
Her time at the Brighton chamber prepared her for her upcoming role as president of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, she said.
Over the next month, Hougen will work with Colwell to prepare her for the transition as interim chamber president. The chamber board is considering who will assume the permanent role.
Colwell has her own goals for the future of the chamber. She recognizes that many people may not know who the chamber is or what they do. During her tenure as president, she would like to help educate the community on the role of the organization.
As Hougen reflects on his departure from the chamber, he said he’s confident the team and the organization is “in a good, strong position.”
Colwell said the chamber’s “goal is always to help people be successful.” Hougen worked to fulfill this mission by building relationships, pioneering projects and adjusting to a changing economy. Colwell hopes to uphold these pillars while contributing to the growth and success of the chamber.