The question now being posed to the District's many black and minority small businesses is: "Is there life after the D.C. Chamber of Commerce?"
For most of them, the answer is "Yes, but . . ."
Most agree that the chamber is worth fighting to save because it is the voice of the black small business community. But, at the same time, its troubles are not likely to have a marked economic impact on city businesses, since it did not provide any tangible daily service to its 326 members or the minority business community it represented.
Business life here without the chamber is becoming more and more likely since the bankrupt organization voted last week to abandon its rented offices for donated space and reduce its staff -- once 30-strong -- to two.
The organization's survival hopes are pinned on a long, difficult road to reestablish its credibility after months of internal dissension and reports of financial illegalities at the highest levels. Its loss would be gradually realized.
"The function of chambers is more of a long-term catalyst, an insurance policy -- trouble shooting, defending the interests of local businesses," explained Jose Antonio Font, a D.C. businessman with the Greater Washington Ibero-American Chamber of Commerce, a Hispanic merchants association.
"The consulting aspect -- the day-to-day service -- was not something that the D.C. Chamber was involved in."
In recent years, the D.C. Chamber under former president James L. Denson who resigned May 7, had been trying to change its image from a predominantly black and largely minority-associated business group to the city's primary representative for the entire business community. It had of late been reaching out to the District's white minority, and had signed up some of the established, white-owned corporations.
But historically, the D.C. Chamber of Commerce had represented the corner store owner, the small-time developers, the morticians. The chamber was, in effect, the black equivalent of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, the city's de facto chamber of commerce.
It is in the role of champion of small business that most observers agree the D.C. chamber would be missed most, should its current financial difficulties force it out of business.
"Maybe it will take six months" for the chamber's current problems to be felt by local businesses, Font said. "But there has to be some kind of leadership. I don't think that the Metropolitan Board of Trade can provide that kind of localized leadership."
Courtland Cox, director of the D.C. Minority Business Opportunity Commission, sees the need. "I think things such as the Chamber of Commerce help amplify the voice of minority businesses and small businesses," he said. "It gives them a voice they couldn't have gotten in any other way.
"If you have a business organization with a staff functioning day-to-day, it allows you to pick up information that might be helpful to your business," he noted. "I think that less noticeable, but just as important is access. The chamber puts on dinners, for example, and allows people to meet in a social setting as opposed to a business setting."
Should the chamber not be able to reestablish the confidence of its members and finanical backers, no one expects the Board of Trade to come in to fill the void.
"I hope the chamber comes out of it," Cox said. "I'm not sure the Board of Trade is suited for this. They're more regional.They're not small in terms of the small businesses we're talking about."
Some board members see hidden benefits in the chamber's current financial crisis, hoping the bankruptcy and threat of extinction will force more black businesses into its fold since many of the District's smaller businesses have not belonged to any organization because they have never before seen any reason to.
"Now is the time for all black businesses to come to the aid of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce," said Calvin W. Rolark, publisher of the Washington Informer and a chamber founder. "What it (the bankruptcy) is going to do is pull black buinesses together and prick the consciences of blacks in the community who did not patronize black businesses as they should.
"I think we've got to stick closer together and realize that (Howard) Hughes became bankrupt numerous times and bounced back. Chrysler certainly bounced back. We do plan to bounce back."