The moment of truth came early yesterday morning. It passed -- and nothing happened.
Only about 30 people showed up at the organizational meeting of the proposed Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce, despite the presence of Gov. William Donald Schaefer, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge. After an hour of presentations and discussion, a steering committee was set up. It has no set membership, no timetable.
For the past several weeks, there has been talk about setting up a chamber of commerce separate from the Greater Baltimore Committee, which gobbled up the previous chamber in 1977. Speakers yesterday unanimously criticized the GBC as an organization that has become too large and unfocused to be an effective champion for the city and its small business interests. But they also seemed to feel that if a chamber of commerce were to be revived, it would have to be part of some existing structure. "I hate the idea of another organization," said Osborne Payne, a local fast-food restaurant chain owner.
Governor Schaefer, the first of the politicians to speak, exemplified this ambivalence. On the one hand he lamented that the city does not have an effective promotion arm. On the other, he told the meeting: "You are walking on dangerous ground. If you are going to do it, you can't go half way and stop. If you do it, it's got to be for the long haul."
It is a pity that neither the city nor the GBC sent representatives jTC to attend the meeting. They would have felt the frustration of Baltimore City business leaders who are trying to survive in this adverse economic climate. Speaker after speaker mentioned their powerlessness before economic forces they cannot control, before a municipal government they feel has no mechanism to make their concerns heard, and before a business group that delves into important regional issues but pays scant attention to the worries of the little guy.
This message was heard throughout the chamber debate. It signals small businessmen's frustrations now that many of the assumptions under which the economy has been operating since World War II seem to be changing. Nobody has a clear idea of the future. Politicians are confused. The GBC is in a flux. There is a vacuum of power, leadership and ideas.
We continue to believe that retooling the GBC is a more promising approach than establishing a rival chamber of commerce. We urge the GBC to use its annual meeting next month as an opportunity to make changes that will equip it to better handle the concerns of the city's small business operators. By embracing the protesters, the GBC could make itself a stronger, more energetic organization at this time of change.