Chamber trying to lure big firms Group made its name from activities, laws and difficult stances

September 07, 1997|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

As they search nationwide for a new executive director, Howard County Chamber of Commerce leaders are setting ambitious goals for growth and change.

The 28-year-old group has experienced extraordinary growth since its early financial struggles. Now it wants to increase its statewide reputation by attracting more businesses, especially larger companies.

"The chamber needs to go to the next level," said Edward L. Waddell, who recently was elected president, along with a board of directors.

Carol K. Baily, executive director for seven years, won praise for her leadership before stepping down last month to take a similar post in Chandler, Ariz. A new executive director is expected to be appointed by the end of the year.

Baily and her staff were credited with more than doubling the chamber's membership to about 1,000 businesses in a county that has about 7,000.

"She really moved the chamber ahead," said Meg Gerety, whom Baily succeeded as executive director in 1989.

About 50 percent of the chamber's member companies have no more than five employees, representative of a county in which 70 percent of businesses have fewer than 10 workers.

The major deterrent to attracting companies with 100 employees or more has been that many such firms in Howard are regional or international, and don't do much business in the county, said Waddell, principal in an accounting and management consulting firm.

"They may not have the same concerns as the small businesses in the county," he said.

While the chamber grapples with becoming more relevant to all Howard businesses, its officials say they are pleased with most other aspects of the group and are expecting a smooth transition when the new director takes the reins.

"We're not interested in change for the sake of change," said Michael G. Riemer, who has been appointed interim executive director by the chamber's board of directors. He's a former chamber president, and founder of two land development service companies in the county.

With a budget of $400,000 and a full-time staff of eight, the chamber has made a name for itself through its numerous business networking activities and its legislative initiatives.

It has also taken some controversial stances, supporting passage of the county's anti-smoking law and repeal of a county "blue law" outlawing car sales on Sundays -- positions viewed by some members as anti-business.

The Howard County Council passed the strictest anti-smoking law in the state, prohibiting smoking in the county's 300 restaurants -- except in sealed-off, separately ventilated barrooms.

For months, restaurant owners battled the law, arguing that it would cut profits and drive out some businesses.

"It wasn't just a business issue, it was a community issue," said attorney Bruce Taub, the chamber's immediate past president. "The health risk was compelling, while the predicted economic impact on restaurants were undocumented."

Brendan Flanagan, the Restaurant Association of Maryland's director of governmental affairs, said county restaurants fought hard for the chamber's support.

"I'm sure it was not welcome news that the county chamber was not going to support its food service and hospitality industry," he said.

The chamber did work with the County Council and the county Office of Law to clarify the definition of a restaurant in the law, and make complying with the law less expensive for some restaurants, Riemer said.

Last year, the chamber also supported repeal of the county's ban on Sunday car sales to encourage CarMax, a used-car superstore, to open in the county.

Jim Miller, owner of Miller Chevrolet in Ellicott City, said all but two of the county's dozen or so dealerships wanted the law to remain in force. The chamber's support of its repeal disappointed but did not surprise him.

A former chamber board member, Miller said the group had a larger responsibility to consider the county's economic development.

"It's tough having to take stances," he said. "They are there to serve the masses and not just the few. In general, they do good work."

While chamber officials said there is room for the new executive director to make improvements, they are pleased with their progress so far.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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