Chambers of Commerce have been around a long time, promoting business in general and members' business in particular. Economic development agencies are a newer breed of business promoter, but no longer novices at what they do. And there are the "quasis," the government-sponsored, privately supported business advocacy groups.
Business gets lots of boosting from other organizations, formal and informal, private and public, large and small, effective and ineffective. And the current administration has made private-sector support as chic and as common in the business community as Nancy Reagan Red is in fashion circles.
The reasons for developing and supporting a healthy business community are myriad, and obvious to almost everyone caught in a recession or a slow recovery.
What's often not so obvious is how to go about lending support. There are somewhat predictable ways, and then there are the refreshing innovations.
One way is to organize all the established business people, drawing on their membership and their expertise to attract business to an area, business that will, in turn, contribute likewise to the group's effort. And then, the group thanks its members for helping.
Such an organization is the Greater Washington Board of Trade. Among its ranks you'll find the best-known companies--based here or with home offices elsewhere--and the best-known business people.
Among the BOT's activities is an annual affair known as Executour, conducted last Thursday and Friday, to show potential business residents what's in and around Washington and to persuade them that locating hereabouts is superior to locating thereabouts.
The six-year-old program, costing "well over $100,000 in expenses and donated services," is modestly successful. BOT officials claim 18 businesses have moved here or expanded operations locally as a result of the tours. The aim is to draw them in.
Another business-promoting group is the Greater Baltimore Committee. These people look rather differently at the world. While interested in luring businesses to the Baltimore area, the GBC also seems to want to help those who are already established Baltimore concerns.
The difference between the two approaches is considerable. In fact, the attitudes of the business people in Baltimore seem to differ significantly from the attitudes that have been observed around here.
Seeking to nurture Baltimore business, the GBC looked around and saw that few minority and women-owned businesses existed or were flourishing. Two years of study lead the GBC to conclude that financing was the critical problem. Minorities and women, equal opportunity laws notwithstanding, couldn't get the money they needed to start new businesses or support under-capitalized but promising old ones.
The GBC first approached several large Baltimore banks about putting up the credit, then the state of Maryland about guaranteeing it. The money's available now to small businesses to help them make a go of it.
To be sure, the banks will get a return on their investment in terms of interest. But Baltimore itself will see the real returns in a richer economic fabric, woven from community spirit and tangible assistance. Now that's economic development.
An offshoot of GBC, the Economic Development Council of Greater Baltimore, offered some more real help to business just last week.
"From the drawing board to the Big Board," the brochures proclaimed, exhorting high-tech companies, would-be companies and those who serve high-tech industries to spend two days at a seminar in Columbia.
With the Baltimore law firm of Venable, Baetjer & Howard as its guiding hand, the seminar walked entrepreneurs through most of the rewards and pitfalls of running a company.
The seminar ran precisely on schedule, the printed materials were excellent, and the people who presented the materials were entertaining and informative about sometimes arcane matters. Jacques T. Schlenger, managing partner of Venable, Baetjer and Howard, moderated the seminar--but that's an understatement. His amusing summations of each group of talks kept participants awake when the eccentricities of securities law could've forced everyone to chew No-Doz.
No seminar can cover what some folks have spent years at Harvard or decades in the real world trying to learn. But it was a broad-based, realistic look at business geared for folks who know all about their inventions and little about LIFO accounting.
That seminar was another example of grass-roots support for business. Perhaps the founder of the next IBM was in attendance and discovered the benefits of going public. More likely, some tiny high-tech firm whose only assets are the brains of its management will be a successful, contributing member of the business community, rather than a bankruptcy statistic.
Retention and support are the watchwords of economic development now. There are hundreds of businesses around the District that could add, rather than subtract, from the region's economy, if someone would just direct some of their high-priced programs to the business that's already here.
This is not to say that the Greater Washington Board of Trade is a washout at promoting business and business interests. It does that, and the group is beneficial. Its much-lauded antishoplifting program alone is worth the price of membership.
But there's more to be done, and it's right under the Board of Trade's nose, if the BOT would just bring it's nose down a notch.
An illustration: The National Association of Women Business Owners recently had its spring dinner, a $50-a-plate fund-raiser that features a successful woman as the keynote speaker each year. Film producer Sherry Lansing was the guest this year, preceded in other years by the likes of Maureen Reagan and Clare Boothe Luce.
NAWBO is a large and growing group of sharp women entrepreneurs. Members are encouraged to participate in civic affairs and actively urged to join the BOT.
When approached by NAWBO to attend the dinner, the Board of Trade refused to buy even one ticket, much less show its support to women business owners by buying a table for the event.
And one prominent D.C. banker, when asked if his bank would take a table, replied with a sniff, "I don't give to that charity."
Would anyone consider such disdain as support for the business community? No--certainly not if you consider the business community to be everyone in business, not just the first-tier companies.
It's time the establishment business organizations around Washington went beyond the hand-shaking, back-slapping, gee-aren't-we-successful club atmosphere. It's time the right hand of establishment business be extended in assistance to everyone.
An economy is only as good as its small businesses.