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Chambers of commerce face tough questions

The search committee charged with finding a new chief executive for the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce will likely have lots of questions for candidates seeking the job.

Then again, those candidates might have a few questions for the search committee, the chamber’s board, its membership and those who are concerned or just curious about the future of the organization – questions that might prove even tougher to answer.

Questions like: Just why do you want a chamber? What do you want this chamber to do? What do you want it to be? And for whom?

The standard and automatic responses to the question of “why a chamber of commerce?” might be along the lines of “because we’ve always had one” and “everyone else has one,” or even “because it gets stuff done.”

But those responses to the first two questions aren’t terribly useful or adequate in 2010. The third response might provoke a further round of questions: “What stuff? And how well?”

That suggests the search committee might find itself asking a lot more questions about what the chamber’s role is than about who should lead it.

Chambers of commerce have evolved into an odd sort of hybrid animal, with features and functions of many other types of organizations. The natural outcome of such evolution is mission drift, confusion and blurring through addition and diversification, resulting in an entity that often overlaps or duplicates what other organizations do, and which may not be the best mechanism for handling those tasks it has taken on.

The modern chamber is part social club, part governmental lobbyist, part business services provider, part tourism bureau, part civic booster and part economic development agency, the proportions of each part differing by individual chamber. But virtually every one of those roles is also played by at least one, and sometimes several, other organizations. For example? Cities and counties of even modest size these days maintain their own economic development departments, and regions often operate quasi-public agencies specifically assigned the job of business recruitment and retention (locally, that would be the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County).

Even when it comes to what would seem to be a core function of a chamber – representing the interests of business with legislators and regulators at the county or city level – the waters quickly become murky. Which businesses? Which interests?

As we have seen in recent statewide initiative campaigns, business is not monolithic when it comes to its interests. What small businesses want doesn’t match what big companies want. What businesses downtown are interested in may be of no concern to those in the neighborhoods of the rest of the city, or in the balance of Pierce County. What a retailer cares about may have no relation to the issues of concern to a construction company, a firm involved in international trade or a manufacturer – or what benefits one type of business might be detrimental to another. Even within an industry there can be significant differences on big policy, legislative and regulatory disputes.

That leaves the modern chamber with some delicate and difficult choices: Take a stand on certain issues to make part of your membership happy, leaving another segment feeling neglected or even rejected? Or take no stands likely to generate any sort of controversy, running the risk of being a “status quo” organization or, even worse, irrelevant?

Businesses have other options to turn to – smaller, more local chambers and business organizations, and trade and industry groups that know their constituents’ circumstances and worries in more detail, and can devote much more attention to them, than a large broad-membership-base chamber could ever hope to.

These are not ivory-tower ruminations, but real-world questions with real-world ramifications, not the least being the very future of chambers of commerce.

Money and time being scare resources for businesses even in the best of times (which these definitely aren’t), businesses will not continue to cut checks to belong to organizations out of force of habit. Increasingly they’re going to want to see value – in the form of attention paid to their specific concerns, and results – for the dues they pay. Otherwise, it’s just money paid for a feel-good sense of belonging – and business budgets have little room for that.

Sounds a bit melodramatic? In fact those kinds of decisions are already being made. The Columbian newspaper recently reported that the Port of Vancouver voted to cut its appropriation for the Columbia River Economic Development Council over unhappiness with the agency’s track record in job creation (one commissioner cast a dissenting vote because he wanted an even bigger cut that what was approved, the paper reported).

The Tacoma chamber’s request for proposal for a firm to find a new CEO notes that the winner of that competition will work with the search team “to define the CEO job description to be posted for this position.” The chamber might want to add a line about “define the role and future of the chamber,” and then make sure it has a ready answer to the big-picture question of “What are we doing here?”

Because it’s a good bet any worthy candidate for the job will be asking the same thing.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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