For more than a decade the D.C. Chamber of Commerce appeared to be tilting at windmills, as its leadership pursued a grand design of making the 52-year-old organization the leading voice for business in the District. Plagued by scandal and a lack of strong leadership, however, the chamber until recently has been unable to build much credibility outside the minority business community.
Several attempts have been made since the late 1970s to expand the chamber's base but serious internal problems and its inability to gain significant support in the District's white-male dominated business community all but forced the organization to mark time. The chamber had found it difficult even to sell itself to a broad base of small businesses in the city. Too many in the District's private sector still perceive the chamber as an organization founded by blacks and one that exists primarily for black-owned businesses.
To be sure, the chamber was founded as an organization that would represent the interests of black-owned businesses in the District. The older Greater Washington Board of Trade already had been firmly established as the voice of the city's business establishment.
Throughout most of its 101-year history, in fact, the Board of Trade was to the District what most chambers of commerce are to their cities and counties. Indeed, the Board of Trade was much more than that, often dealing directly with Congress on matters affecting the District before the adoption of home rule.
Although the Board of Trade gradually has become a regional chamber of commerce, representing the interests of members throughout the area (hence the name change to the Greater Washington Board of Trade), it still is perceived as the principal voice of business in the District. For a number of reasons, the Chamber of Commerce just hasn't been able to change either people's perception of it or its appeal to the broader business community.
Now, however, the chamber appears to be winning converts, both among small and minority businesses and -- perhaps most encouraging to the chamber's leadership -- in the city's private-sector power structure.
Appearances can be deceiving but the chamber's annual black-tie awards dinner recently held at the Sheraton Washington Hotel provided an intriguing glimpse at what might be evidence of the organization's coming of age as the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
Although most of those who attended were black, it was, for this event, an unusually broad mix of people, with several leading D.C. companies represented. This year's dinner chairman was Donald Graham, publisher of The Washington Post. Barbara Blum, chairwoman of Adams National Bank, was one of two co-chairs for the dinner. John Tydings, executive vice president of the Board of Trade, was among those who received awards for their leadership in the community and accomplishments in business.
Encouraged by the new show of support and cooperation on display at the dinner, a chamber official beamed confidently, but quietly: "We're getting there."
Getting there obviously will require more than staging a successful and well-attended dinner. It will require more than the presidents of the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Trade sharing the same table and small talk or a declaration that the chamber is getting there.
"They've crossed the threshold, it seems, in saying 'We're no longer a black chamber but a chamber that represents business in the city, though still leaning toward smaller firms,' " said a prominent executive who supports the chamber's goal of becoming the leading business advocacy group in the District. Nonetheless, he added, "They've got to show a substantive appeal to the broader business community."
Three major obstacles stand in the way of that right now: a lack of adequate financial resources, a lack of depth in leadership and cynicism by those who view the chamber through elitist eyes in a way that says it's not possible for an organization controlled by blacks to replace the Board of Trade. At the same time, a fair amount of cynicism within the chamber itself feeds a desire to remain mostly black.
Cynicism can be overcome by men and women of goodwill and common sense, whose greater interests lie in maintaining a viable private sector and in expanding the District's economy. The other two obstacles are much more difficult to overcome.
Unlike the Board of Trade, whose budget is supported by individual and corporate membership dues, the chamber relies heavily upon an appropriation in the D.C. government's budget for the stability of its own budget. The chamber has for several years received funds from the city under contract to promote tourism, among other things. That's not a healthy relationship and ought to be severed. In fact, it smacks of a conflict of interest.
How can the chamber possibly lobby the D.C. government for legislation or policies favorable to business while holding out its hat for an appropriation? Ending that relationship would be a first step toward credibility.
Meanwhile, it's going to take someone from the District's business establishment, a prominent player in the power game played by local executives, to step forward and make the case for joining the chamber. As one executive put it, it's going to take someone like that to "bring about 20 players to the table and say, 'I'd like for us to contribute $1,000 or $2,000 a year for three years as a commitment to make this thing work.' "
It's going to take something like that for sure, but these are tough times and people in business aren't likely to part too easily with money for an organization that twice was victimized by misappropriations of its funds.
In any event, the chamber first must amply demonstrate that it can take on a project of considerable significance to the business community and/or the city and produce some meaningful results. That's one way to quiet those who insist, as one businessman did recently, that "They don't have a track record yet."
While there are questions about the chamber's track record, it's clear that the current leadership is much stronger than most that have been at the helm since the organization began rebuilding in the late 1970s.
However, the biggest thing the chamber may have going for it, perhaps, is the fact that the leadership of the Board of Trade, no less, is supportive of its desire to be a strong traditional chamber of commerce for business in the District. Neither board nor chamber officials have disclosed details, but it's generally known that leaders of the two organizations have been discussing ways in which the board can be of help to the chamber in expanding the latter's role.
Certainly the timing is right for the chamber to broaden its role and membership base. Not only has the Board of Trade become a regional rather than a local chamber but its decision this year to pare its activities as part of a major restructuring paves the way for the chamber to grow in the District. Leaders of the Board of Trade have implied that as the organization continues to restructure, other groups will have to pick up part of the load.
Now it's only a question of how prepared the chamber is to step forward and how much support can it expect from Board of Trade members who do business in the District.