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MISSION: COMMERCE: In the end, a chamber stands alone

There is collaboration but no hierarchical control from U.S. chamber to local groups

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Chambers of commerce at the local, state and national levels might share similar names, but they are not in a chain-of-command hierarchy.

Each chamber, from some as small as having a budget of $10,000 annually to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is its own standalone entity, said Raymond P. Towle, IOM, CAE, executive director, political affairs and federation relations for the U.S. chamber.

The group is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Generally, a chamber's focus correlates with how large it is, Towle said. The U.S. chamber focuses on advocating for its members at the federal level.

One way it does so and works with local chambers is through fly-in events in which chamber leaders from across the country will go to Washington, D.C., and the U.S. chamber to learn about issues, then lobby lawmakers, he said.

The U.S. chamber also offers leadership training and accreditation to chambers, said Towle, who holds the Institute for Organization Management recognition and Certified Association Executive certification.

Similarly, state groups serve the U.S. chamber role at the state level.

Metro chambers, by comparison, tend to have a greater share of their focus on economic development, and more local community chambers are generally more focused on networking opportunities for members, Towle said.

There are some misperceptions about how tightly affiliated chamber groups are, particularly the U.S. chamber and state counterparts, said Lesley Smith, director of communications for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

She reiterated that they do collaborate but are all separate organizations with separate agendas, which for the Pennsylvania chamber is advocacy at the state level, Smith said.

Its agenda is set by its members, including other chambers, and most closely adheres to more general pro-business stances as opposed to taking sides on regional business issues, she said.

For example, its members from various parts of the state were split on the idea several years ago to toll Interstate 80, Smith said. So the Pennsylvania chamber did not take a position.

Disagreement is inherent when there are so many local chamber groups across the country with local interests compared with the broader points of view of larger organizations, said Chris Mead, senior vice president of the Virginia-based American Chamber of Commerce Executives.

Mead is writing a book on the history of chambers and has so far researched heavily until about 1940.

The U.S. chamber, for example, had opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt's agenda. But members of chambers in certain areas of the country benefitted greatly from the resulting public works projects, such as in the area of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the South, he said.

Some local chambers quit the U.S. chamber as a result, Mead said.

And disagreements aren't isolated to history, he said.

Today, a local chamber would have a hard time not supporting a liberal Democratic lawmaker who finally gets a big bridge project to a community even though the U.S. chamber might oppose the lawmaker on his or her overall positions, Mead said.

"And those kinds of things are going to come up forever," he said.

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey

Brent Burkey covers York County, agribusiness, energy and environment, and workforce issues. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at brentb@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @brentburkey.

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