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Chamber Executive Article Archive

The Urge to Merge: Oklahoma

Katherine House

Winter 2012

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Chamber at a Glance: Oklahoma City, Okla.

Water taxis cruise the Bricktown Canal near downtown Oklahoma City. The canal opened in 1999 and courses through the Bricktown entertainment district, which features shops, restaurants and a baseball park for the Oklahoma City RedHawks, the AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros.

Community and political leaders around the country are scrutinizing the success of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce in overseeing many functions within one organization. Leaders in Colorado Springs, Colo., are in the process of merging the area’s chamber and economic development entity, in part because of what they’ve seen done by the OKC chamber of commerce.

Don’t let the name of the organization mislead you, says Roy Williams, OKC chamber president and CEO, and chairman elect of the ACCE Board of Directors. “Almost no other metro in the U.S. has the model we have,” he says. “We’re an economic development organization first and a chamber second. Oftentimes it’s the reverse.”

And unlike many other chamber/EDC blends, the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce didn’t reach its present form as a result of mergers. Instead, it grew internally as leaders saw the need for such services. Today, the organization has an annual budget of $17 million, 70 full-time employees and more than 5,300 members.

“We’re the go-to organization,” says Williams. When separate entities exist, it can be “politically extremely tough.” And if there is a crisis, such as a financial one, “You can’t have multiple organizations going in all different directions,” he explains. When the chamber and EDC are separate, “They compete for resources, talent and leadership.” The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber’s web site explains its role, “Together we work to foster growth in the Oklahoma City economy, creating a better business climate and a higher quality of life.”

 

The chamber has a contract with both the city and neighboring county to handle economic development. At the same time, the chamber runs a 10-county economic development partnership encompassing 45 regional economic development partners. Partners pay a fee based on population, which the chamber matches. The chamber then markets the region to new employers and performs duties such as building economic impact models and developing web sites. Williams believes his well-trained, highly qualified staff has “raised the professionalism” of what partners would be able to offer by themselves.

The chamber also operates the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, including a visitor center. Williams sees a direct connection between economic development and the CVB. Most visitors bureaus focus on “heads in beds,” he says. But since his CVB is part of a larger economic development organization, “We like to bring the right heads [here],” he says, such as trade shows representing targeted industries.

Williams is justifiably proud of the role the chamber has played not only in helping the city develop Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPs) plans, but also in leading efforts to help finance them. Beginning in 1993, the chamber led a campaign to pass a five-year, one-cent sales tax to fund major projects that included the construction of a 20,000-seat indoor sports arena and construction of the Bricktown Canal. In December 2009, voters approved a one-cent sales tax that went into effect in April 2010 for 93 months. What will the MAPS 3 initiative achieve? Eight projects, including a new convention center, a modern downtown streetcar, senior health and wellness aquatic centers and 57 miles of new walking and biking trails.

Many chambers are defined by how well they execute chamber programs that are typically geared only to members, says Williams. Not so in Oklahoma City. “We’re charged with building a better community, not building the best chamber of commerce,” he says.

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