Revive Chamber of Commerce, Ambridge says Greater Baltimore panel found wanting

March 24, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Staff Writer

Almost 15 years after the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce merged into the Greater Baltimore Committee to provide a unified voice for the city's business community, some are saying that another voice is needed.

City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge introduced a resolution to the City Council yesterday calling for the reactivation of the Baltimore Chamber of Commerce. Mr. Ambridge said, by working on the City Council and the Regional Council of Governments, he has seen the need for an organization to specifically represent the Baltimore business community.

Mr. Ambridge said he doesn't believe the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional organization, is adequately addressing the specific needs of the city's businesses.

The GBC has a Chamber Division that holds educational seminars and gives out awards, but Mr. Ambridge said he considers it a "forgotten stepchild" in the GBC organization, which is concerned with broader economic issues in Baltimore and the five surrounding counties.

Although the resolution is the result of his own observations, the 2nd District councilman said the idea has the support of a variety of business leaders and politicians.

The Maryland Chamber of Commerce, while taking no position on the proposal to create a city chamber, "generally endorses the strengthening of local chamber networks," said Gene Bracken, spokesman for the Maryland Chamber.

When the city's Chamber of Commerce and the GBC merged in 1977, the business community thought a unified effort would be better able to serve businesses, said Jacques Schlenger, a lawyer with Venable Baetjer & Howard who helped orchestrate the merger.

At the time, the chamber, which was formed in 1924, was larger, with several hundred members. It had members from large and small companies, but was perceived as the small business group.

The GBC, by contrast, was composed of the heads of the 100 largest companies in Baltimore. Although it had fewer members, it was politically more powerful than the chamber.

The organizations competed for dollars and power, but because the leaders of both groups supported the merger, the process went fairly smoothly, Mr. Schlenger recalled.

Chamber members voted 301 to 66 in favor of the merger.

The question then was whether the big businesses and small businesses had enough in common to work together effectively. "It probably was more difficult to accommodate the little fellows than the big ones," Mr. Schlenger said.

While not calling the merger a failure, Mr. Ambridge said he believes the city needs an organization that will pay particular attention to businesses in the city, especially small and minority-owned firms.

"There's a perception that the GBC only looks after big business," he said.

GBC President Robert Keller said his organization doesn't perform all of the functions of a Chamber of Commerce, but he said the committee has succeeded in providing a unified voice for small businesses as well as large. "I think we really have done a good job," he said.

He questioned whether now is the time to form a new group because companies struggling during the recession might be hard pressed to support it. "In a time of scarce resources, we ought to be very careful about unnecessary duplication of efforts," he said.

But, he said, the GBC wouldn't protest or attempt to impede efforts to create a new chamber.

Mr. Ambridge said he doesn't believe the two organizations would duplicate efforts or compete. He said he envisions the two filling different roles: the GBC continuing to represent business issues for the region; a chamber working more directly to help businesses grow and develop.

"I know many people who feel there is room for a chamber," he said.

One of those is Fletcher Hall, executive director of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors.

"The consensus is there is a need for a cheerleader for the city and a need to bring smaller and larger groups together," Mr. Hall said.

The board of directors of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors recently passed a resolution in favor of creating a citywide chamber.

While the merger might have made sense 15 years ago, a number of changes in the city since have created the need for a new approach, Mr. Hall said. "Times have changed and the emphases have changed," he said.

Those changes include a shift of political power from Baltimore to Maryland's Washington suburbs, the flight of the city's middle class to the counties and a change in the leadership at some of Baltimore's largest companies.

"I think there is a need for a coordinated effort to take up the basic concerns of what a city needs," he said.

Mr. Hall said he envisions an organization that could tackle problems such as litter or lobby for specific business interests, such as the expansion of the Baltimore convention center.

"The GBC has concerned itself with the efforts of large companies, and that's needed, too," he said. "But there are a number of small- and medium-sized businesses which need to be involved in the city."

A hearing on Mr. Ambridge's resolution is expected next month.

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