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Local Chambers: The Rodney Dangerfields of History?

Chris Mead on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at 9:00:00 am

At this time of election campaigns, many local chambers of commerce make news via candidate forums, endorsements, and more.  But after the first Tuesday in November, the silence returns.  The United States, however, would be almost unrecognizable if the million acts of 7,000 local chambers could somehow be removed from its past.  Here are a few reasons why we’ve forgotten what chambers have done and continue to do:

  1. They tend to avoid taking credit.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”
  2. They don’t have overt power and so they have to share credit for accomplishments with those that do have the final say, even if the project was the chamber’s idea.  This inability to control the whole thing makes poor news copy.  “The chamber was 40 percent responsible for the new convention center” is a headline none of us will ever see.
  3. Individuals, not groups, capture our attention.  Do we think about the 600,000 shivering French troops outside Moscow – or about one short, charismatic man responsible for it all, with his hand inside his vest?
  4. Chambers, by design, start things and spin them off.  Many festivals, transportation projects, civic improvement ideas, you name it – began at chambers but went on to be managed by other groups.  And so, years later, we forget where it all started.
  5. “Rich boy makes good” or “rich boy does good” makes boring copy.  Yet most chamber members aren’t rich.  And sometimes these individuals, rich or poor, put their heads together and change their communities in fascinating ways.
  6. The business of business people is business.  Entrepreneurs are lionized for the way they line their wallets.  We don’t usually think of their other lives, in which sometimes they may eclipse their business achievements.
  7. “It was inevitable.”  Of course if you put influential people in 5,000 cities and towns together, for a dozen or more times a year for 50 or even more than 200 years, something’s going to happen.  But the real question is, why did some chambers hit it out of the park, while others hit themselves on the head – sometimes repeatedly?  
  8. Government organizations and nonprofit groups have proliferated, frequently with the support of chambers of commerce.  It’s not hard to get lost in these many-thicketed woods.
  9. Local chambers aren’t ideological.  They often lean to the right on general economic and business issues, but when it comes to getting that bridge funded or a bond issue for a much-needed school, they can veer to the left faster than a speeding politician.  Not being easily classified politically, chambers are not easily grasped by students of history.
  10. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is often seen as the leader of local chambers; in many ways it is, but there is no hierarchy or unified governing body in the American chamber universe.  The U.S. Chamber was formed in 1912 through, in part, the efforts of many local chambers of commerce that wanted a national voice for business.  Local chambers are not “chapters” under the national chamber.  The U.S. Chamber, often involving the loose federation of local chambers, has played a major role in American history.  And so, too, have thousands of local chambers, plugging away with on policy, politics, and place making since the first one emerged in New York in 1768.
  11. Most chamber members are neither saints nor villains.  They aren’t ashamed of profits but they want to help their community.  Where’s the hot story in those intertwined goals?
  12. Chambers of commerce depend to a significant extent on something you can’t touch.  What is the “Atlanta spirit” or the “Spirit of St. Louis”?  While we’ve toned down the boosterism of a century ago, chambers of commerce still rely on bonds among individuals within the chamber, and within the community, to make things better than they are.  Whether it’s a “rah-rah” spirit or a buttoned-down, urban, noblesse oblige-inspired caring for the community, it can be very real.
  13. Local chambers are “just local.”  Where’s the sweep of history and the path of armies?  Where’s the glamour of Main Street?  What’s the glory in changing a street-sign ordinance?  And yet, as Tip O’Neill said, “All politics is local.”  Jerusalem, Florence, and Athens are local.  From comparatively little places, big things can happen.

To learn more about the fascinating, often overlooked, history of chambers pick up your copy of The Magicians of Main Street:  America and its Chambers of Commerce, 1768-1945.

Republish this column in your chamber newsletter or local paper. Contact Chris Mead for more information.

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