Why a City Chamber of Commerce?

April 20, 1992

Is a separate chamber of commerce needed in Baltimore City?

This question is being debated around the region, with some politicians and entrepreneurs saying the Greater Baltimore Committee has failed as a cheerleader for the city and as an advocate for its smaller businesses. We suspect much of this debate centers on complaints that have little to do with the GBC's real or perceived failures but are connected with confusion over the roles of certain established institutions.

The city's -- and region's -- leadership is in crisis. One does not have to look any further than Annapolis to gauge that fact. The state politicians' inability to come to grips not only with next fiscal year's budget but with a series of related decisions translates to uncertainty that is felt in the public and private sectors throughout Maryland. Meanwhile, recent troubles in the banking and insurance industries have led to a wholesale removal of executives who used to run those powerhouses and also played prominent roles in the Greater Baltimore Committee, a multi-faceted strategy organization that in 1977 gobbled up the city's Chamber of Commerce.

This power vacuum is aggravated by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's refusal to become the kind of cheerleader and civic whip-cracker that William Donald Schaefer was during his long tenure as mayor. Mr. Schaefer's relationship with the business community was often a stormy one, but at least he was always visible -- giving direction, persuading, haranguing. Mr. Schmoke is more low key. And some of the institutions which in the past did the city's bidding -- the former Regional Planning Council, in particular -- are now in disarray and struggling for survival.

Complaints about the GBC's performance that in the past might have been dismissed as insignificant apparently have gained some resonance amid this confusion. A movement spearheaded by the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors is now building to start a new chamber of commerce. Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge has introduced a resolution to that effect. The Daily Record, the legal paper, has published a detailed agenda of how this could be achieved through the conversion of the Downtown Partnership, a management and booster organization for properties along Charles Street and other commercial arteries.

Recent upheaval in the private and public sectors has been so fundamental that the Greater Baltimore Committee's long-established model may well be in need of change. But considering the many problems confronting Baltimore, rethinking the GBC's role and organization appears to us a more productive approach than wasting limited resources on a rival organization.

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