Op-Ed | The Value of Chambers of Commerce
by Chris Clark, President & CEO, Georgia Chamber
Since the first Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1599 in France, businesses have banded together for the common interest of economic growth and prosperity. In 1768, the New York Chamber established the first new world outpost to push back against ‘foreign’ governmental overreach. Local and State Chambers spread quickly. To promote the national interest of job creators the US Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1912. The Georgia Chamber was incorporated in 1915 by local chambers to promote small businesses, support rural communities and to protect our largest employers from job-killing policy.
Despite this legacy, many assume that chambers are arms of local or state government. This couldn’t be further from the truth. A chamber of commerce is a non-partisan independent organization representing business interests and the promise of free enterprise. That means partnering with federal, state, regional and local governments on some issues and fighting them fiercely on others.
The Georgia Chamber and our local chamber partners around the state have been and remain the constant and consistent voice for business interests. In the early 20th century Georgia chambers fought for equal funding for public and minority education. In the 1920’s we recruited the first film production to the state and created Georgia Grown to support our farmers. In the 30’s we advocated for rural electrification. In the 40’s we supported the war effort and jump-started both industrial recruitment and land conservation in the 1950s. In the 1960’s we fought for civil rights and then fought with governors in the 1970’s against over-regulation. In the 80’s we focused on quality education and balanced economic growth in rural Georgia. We lobbied for information age policy in the ’90s and in this century, we’ve tackled issues from water conservation to discrimination; from expanding transit and transportation infrastructure to promoting rural prosperity.
Those successes were the result of committed business leaders that focused on a brighter vision of the future. Consider what every chamber in Georgia does every day: advocate for free enterprise, fair taxation, education attainment and regulatory reform; fight discrimination, government overreach and apathy; offer unique opportunities to network that help expand business prospects; provide the latest insights on trends and emerging issues; support international trade and connect markets; develop next-generation economic policy and strategies; bring together diverse coalitions to tackle issues; conduct leadership training and strategic planning for communities and businesses; file lawsuits and briefs on behalf of investors; help businesses tell their special story and a hundred other things for less than businesses pay a part-time employee.
At the same time these chambers are leading their communities into a diverse and ever-changing New Georgia Economy comprised of a variety of ever-expanding global economic trends. These advancements are creating new markets, demands, opportunities, risks and in essence, a very different world economy that is constantly evolving and disrupting business, education and governing.
The new economy offers the promise of a renaissance for rural communities and neglected city centers. It offers economic mobility that moves people from poverty to promising futures. It offers a catalyst to tackle our most pressing problems. But there are also risks of political divisiveness, a 350% increase in cyber-attacks, a global war for talent, 39 million national jobs lost to automation, and growing income inequality.
But Georgia can remain prosperous if business leaders and their chambers continue to focus on the future. We need new policies to deal with concepts like portable benefits, creative connectivity, lifelong learning, autonomous vehicles, drones, intellectual property, artificial intelligence, climate and healthcare delivery.
We must develop a new entrepreneurial ecosystem that fosters a vibrant and more diverse small business sector by supporting women and minority entrepreneurs and inspiring the next generation of innovators. This ecosystem will also demand a greater focus on research and development, data protection, innovation, infrastructure, and logistics as well as rural prosperity.
To prepare Georgians for this new economy our schools and parents and children will need to commit to life-long learning, a more diverse education delivery system, up-skilling, flexible technical training, integrated liberal arts as well as vibrant research and regional universities. We will need to prioritize the education of the next generation of makers, doers, growers, builders and instill them with the spirit of entrepreneurship.
As daunting as this seems, it is achievable. Just as chambers have been the catalyst for economic progress for 420 years so too will they facilitate and lead in the New Georgia Economy by working with federal, state and local leaders.
As the global economy rapidly evolves, The Georgia Chamber and all of our local chambers of commerce are working together in a vast, national network to provide coordinated leadership to protect free enterprise, capitalize on emerging trends, and mitigate risk to our members, their talented teams and to our communities. I hope that you’ll be part of the chamber family and part of a bright Georgia future.
President & CEO