Baltimore's man for all businesses Head of new chamber plans local focus

January 18, 1993|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Staff Writer

H. Russell Frisby Jr. wants to make one point very clear: The new organization he is heading is not opposing the Greater Baltimore Committee.

"It's not," said the interim chairman of the newly created Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce Inc. "The agendas are different. Our agenda is much more local than is the GBC's. We are concerned about the nitty-gritty service issues. It is not something which is on the GBC's agenda."

Germinating for more than a year, the Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce finally blossomed on Jan. 5, holding its organizational meeting at the offices of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors on Mount Royal Avenue. Presiding over that first meeting was Mr. Frisby, a 42-year-old partner at the city's largest law firm, Venable, Baetjer and Howard.

But while he downplays any possible conflict between the chamber and the GBC, Mr. Frisby says there are distinct differences between the two groups. The new group will be taking an intensely local approach, concerning itself with the day-to-day problems of small and medium-size businesses rather than trying to develop strategy for regional business development.

"Times have changed, the economy has changed and the city has changed," Mr. Frisby said. "We're no longer a headquarters town; we're never going to be a headquarters town. . . . In the future, we are going to be far more dependent on small and medium-size businesses to provide the basic economic engine for Baltimore City."

There were some unsuccessful discussions with the GBC to try to find some common ground. "I think it became clear that our agenda was very different from the GBC's agenda, and there was no sense in trying to fit a square peg into a round hole," Mr. Frisby said.

Robert Keller, president of the GBC, agrees with Mr. Frisby that the two groups won't compete with each other. The GBC is a regional organization, Mr. Keller said, even though it has concentrated on issues that affect Baltimore -- including proposals to expand the convention center.

"We're offering to cooperate where we can," he said. "We're going to look for ways that we can work together on some projects."

The first meeting of the chamber was equal parts business meeting and pep rally for the new group. Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke were on hand to lend support and to fight for Baltimore business.

Mr. Schaefer was particularly insistent that the group become a cheerleader for the city. "There is a need," Mr. Schaefer said. "Are you going to fill the void?"

Besides its local interest, another key to the group is diversity. And Mr. Frisby says his chairmanship of the group is a mark of that diversity.

"It was important that we wanted to make clear that this would be a chamber for everyone," he said. "I think I had, quite frankly, the broadest contacts in both the white and black business communities."

The idea of a new chamber had its origins in the Baltimore City Council, where some of the members began advocating a chamber of commerce for black businesses. But as the idea was kicked around, the direction changed toward an organization that would include all segments of the business community, Mr. Frisby said.

"The more everyone thought about it, the more there came to be a realization that if we are talking about Baltimore in 2000, we're not talking about black businesses or white businesses," he said. "We are talking about all businesses."

And a chief goal of the chamber is to be more accessible to businesses owned by minorities and women as well as the small and medium-size businesses that have been left out of other groups.

"All the groups that the chamber is attempting to reach out to, all suffered from the problem of not having full access in the past to the traditional business groups," he said.

As an advocate for Baltimore, the chamber would have been particularly helpful in the fight last year over where the federal Health Care Financing Administration should establish its headquarters, which included a work force of about 2,900.

"What you had were the developers and the city taking on the county government, [Rep. Helen Delich] Bentley and the Baltimore County Chamber," he said. "You didn't have an organized business group supporting the HCFA project."

The project is slated to be built in Woodlawn in Baltimore County, though Mayor Schmoke recently asked President-elect Bill Clinton to review the decision.

Mr. Frisby became involved in the chamber movement in the spring after reading an editorial in Warfield's Business Record, which listed him as one of those who should get involved in the project. "It made a lot of sense to me," he said. "And I decided to accept the challenge."

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