Most people are aware of chambers of commerce but aren’t quite sure what they do. Some believe chambers are part of the local government or think of them as “that organization that puts on the town festival.” Yes, chambers are often the organization putting on the festival and yes they frequently work with local governments; but in the U.S., they are not part of any government. They are independent member organizations and their members are businesses.
Business organizations promoting trade and commerce have existed for more than 4,000 years. In America, chambers got their start much like the United States did: opposing taxes. The Molasses Act of 1733 brought the Boston businesses together. In New York City, the 1765 Stamp Act was the catalyst for first official American chamber of commerce created in 1768. These new chambers in the colonies were different from the ones in Europe, which were part of government. In his book, “The Magicians of Main Street”, chamber of commerce historian Chris Mead describes these new American organizations as “relatively independent of government authority as they represented the commercial interests in an occasionally hostile and never easy mercantile environment.”
As our country grew across the continent, so did the number of chambers of commerce. Business leaders rallied around initiatives to better their communities. The Erie Canal, which brought great prosperity to the Northeast, would likely not have been built if the New York Chamber and its business leaders had not lobbied so heavily for the project. In addition to lobbying for valuable infrastructure projects for their communities, chambers took on boosterism creating reasons for people to visit and spend money in their communities. Some famous local chamber of commerce boosterism projects include launching the Atlantic City Chamber’s Miss America Pageant and the Hollywood Chamber’s Stars of Hollywood Walk of Fame. The most interesting chamber initiative was the Chicago Association of Commerce’s Secret Six committee. Formed in the 1930s to address mob activity, the committee raised money to buy information used to help take down Al Capone and other gangsters.
Until the 1970s, chambers of commerce almost solely supported their local businesses through advocacy and boosterism. In the latter half of the 20th century, chambers began offering ongoing programs to help members find more business or to improve operations. During that period that local governments looked to their local chamber’s expertise and connections and established contracts for specific business-related duties involving tourism or economic development marketing.
The needs of businesses have changed over the past 40 years and many of today’s jobs require brains versus brawn. Businesses demand a highly-skilled workforce and a community that offers a quality of life that attracts the best workers. Since businesses are more focused on workforce and quality of life, chambers are too. Initiatives to improve schools, build higher education facilities or attract more amenities to their community are priorities on many chambers’ programs of work.
The businesses that are engaged with the Fayette Chamber of Commerce expect the Chamber to provide opportunities to grow business as well as have a hand in building a desirable community. That is why the Chamber was the catalyst for Fayette Visioning. This bold plan focuses on taking Fayette County to the next level with a cadre of initiatives focused on prosperity, education, place and community. As Fayette Vision begins the real work of implementing the plan, the Chamber stands ready to do its part to make Fayette County the best it can be.