#312. The Other Chamber of Commerce

Posted on | The Agurban

The Other Chambers of Commerce
by Chris Mead, Sr. VP of the American Chamber of Commerce Executives
Post on Newgeography.com, 18 Nov 2010
The recent political conflict between the Obama Administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has thrown a new spotlight on an old communication problem. Local chambers of commerce, although they predate the U.S. Chamber by nearly a century and a half, often are assumed to be part of the U.S. Chamber, or otherwise under its direction. They aren’t. They are independent.
During the pre-election controversy this year, it was clear that many people, including many chamber members, did not know this fact. They believe that U.S. Chamber President Tom Donohue and his colleagues on H Street directly or indirectly control all that local chambers do. But Donohue and his staff don’t exercise such control, nor do they want to.
Few people think about what chambers do locally. For example, who knows that Elliot Tiber, president of the Bethel, N.Y., Chamber of Commerce, secured the permit for Woodstock?
It was also a local chamber – the Business Men’s League of Atlantic City – that came up in 1920 with the idea of a festival to keep tourists in town after Labor Day. Pretty women in beachwear would turn out to be the centerpiece of the annual event. We have that business group (now called the Greater Atlantic City Chamber) to thank for the Miss America Contest.
Was Charles Lindbergh’s plane called The Spirit of Enterprise (the U.S. Chamber’s tag line)? No, the flying bucket of bolts was, of course, The Spirit of St. Louis. The president of the St. Louis Chamber came up with the name in order to promote the great river city. And why should Lindbergh object? The chamber president also raised most of the money for the aircraft.
Most of the thousands of things that local chambers have done and do are far removed from the big national issues that embroil the U.S. Chamber. Sure, most of the chambers in the country agree with and support the lion’s share of the U.S. Chamber’s positions. Although the goals are often the same, the priorities, issues, methods, leadership and, importantly, ownership are not.
Some national change in the country’s economic model has sprung directly from the actions of chambers. The Chicago Board of Trade, a chamber founded in 1848, revolutionized how its members bought and sold farm commodities, becoming so successful that by 1859 it essentially left the traditional chamber business. Instead, the Board of Trade continued to plow the virgin soil of this new financial field, inventing futures contracts and modern commodities trading.
So much of what we think of as America was facilitated or aided by those often forgotten, always resourceful groups known as local chambers of commerce. Whether it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the statue of Vulcan over Birmingham, commission and city manager forms of government, United Way-style giving, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and so much more – it was local chambers that led the way. The U.S. Chamber was fighting for business and free enterprise principles in Washington, but it was local chambers working “on the ground” that helped plant so many of these seeds across the nation.
Each of the local chambers is vastly smaller than the U.S. Chamber, but collectively they have had a large impact. As in so many things, it has been the local organizations, not merely the national ones, that have shaped this country’s enterprise culture.