Chamber finds niche among smaller firms Thriving: In 3 years, a fledgling Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce has given a voice to mom-and-pop and big businesses alike.

January 24, 1996|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Baltimore businesses get asked to support the Greater Baltimore Committee, the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Alliance, Maryland Business for Responsive Government and niche industry groups.

Does anybody really need a Baltimore City Chamber of Commerce?

Three hundred and twenty business operators apparently think so. Three years into its new life, that's how many members the city chamber has. It continues to add more.

The group has survived a risky infancy and is stepping into toddlerhood, supported mainly by small and smaller businesses, pushing the issues of crime, grime and localized growth that many felt were neglected by other organizations.

Two years ago, the city chamber had fewer than 100 members and was "living month to month," said Sherry Welch, a consultant who was named the chamber's third leader last year.

Now it has an annual budget of $110,000 and two full-time staffers. Most money comes from members, of which the group hopes to have 500 later this year. Basic membership costs $200.

"We're not flush with money, but we don't have the concerns about the lights being turned out next month," said Ben Mason, a former Control Data Corp. manager who is the chamber's executive vice president and full-time director. "This chamber was not started with the largess of foundations or corporations. It was membership-driven."

Not flush is accurate, although the group has received state and city seed money. The Howard County chamber, by contrast, has more than 1,000 members. But the city chamber seems to have struck a catching note.

Besides stressing city-only political and economic issues, the chamber promotes self-help among business operators and commercial diversity -- diversity of race, gender and business size.

"On a lot of these boards, you get executives from large corporations but not a perspective from the small business operator," said board member Kelvin Jenkins, president of Mid-Atlantic Marketing Consultants. As manufacturers and corporate headquarters depart Baltimore, "it's the small business operator that's going to keep the city running," he added. "I want to make sure that the small business operator does have a voice."

Baltimore lacked its own chamber for more than a decade, a situation that "is sort of unusual, no question," said Arthur Sutty, manager of local programs for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "I'm trying to think of what other Northeastern cities might have followed that route, but offhand I can't think of any."

The Greater Baltimore Committee, an influential business group with a regional focus, absorbed the city chamber years ago. But its focus included the entire region, and it tended to concentrate on big projects like luring sports teams to town or expanding the Convention Center.

"It wasn't really functioning as a voice for small business," said Sonny Morstein, president of Morstein's Jewelers in Federal Hill and a chamber director. "The major meetings were primarily for networking -- and that's what they did. There's a lot of mom-and-pop small stores that are not going to benefit from exchanging business cards."

The chamber doesn't lack large companies. Bell Atlantic is a member. So are major law firms and hospitals. The group's first chairman was H. Russell Frisby Jr., then a partner at the large Venable law firm and chairman of the Public Service Commission since June. Its second chairman was William A. Wycoff, executive vice president at what was then Loyola Capital Corp. and now head of Crestar Financial Corp.'s Maryland region.

Members credit Mr. Frisby with the energy needed to launch the organization and Mr. Wycoff and Mr. Mason with fiscal improvement, refinement of programs and added membership.

But much of the group's mission is devoted to smaller operators concerned with shopper safety, city aesthetics and practical lessons of entrepreneurship.

It supports anti-litter measures and neighborhood police protection. It will roll out an ad campaign this year urging city residents with waste paper to "Can It."

"That's something we can focus on and get something accomplished," said Ms. Welch, a former Girl Scout executive who now runs the Welch Co., a consulting firm for nonprofit organizations.

The chamber still sponsors breakfasts and other networking events. But it also recently got tax-exempt status for an affiliated foundation that will fund other programs. It conducted a mayoral debate last year. It posted candidate responses on an on-line computer service.

It sponsored a seminar on how to do business with the Maryland Film Commission. It intends to invite sports-stadium officials to do the same thing. It gives awards to innovative businesses and deserving educators and police officers.

Ms. Welch talks of the need for the chamber to find "good things" in the city "that we have to talk about and celebrate and build into the system."

Mr. Morstein credits the chamber with making the Schmoke administration "more pro-business, understanding that business is the engine that drives the city."

Mr. Mason, the executive director who holds the organization together from day to day, cites another accomplishment: "We have demonstrated that we have some legs under us. That the chamber is going to survive."

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