Issues change, but Chamber rolls on 150 years later

Water rights. Transportation funding. School performance.

The 12 Atlanta businessmen who organized the Mercantile Association in 1859 could hardly have imagined the complexity of the issues that face its successor organization, the Metro Atlanta Chamber, as it celebrates its 150th anniversary at its annual meeting Thursday.

A century and a half ago, the key issue for the area's business leaders, not surprisingly, was Yankee aggression and its impact on local merchants.

Wholesalers in the North, it seems, were charging double for freight shipped via rail from New York to Atlanta, and a dozen "fed up" activists organized a protest to stop the freight rate discrimination, Rick Smith, the Chamber's 2009 chairman, wrote in the annual report.

"The issues have changed," added Smith, who is chairman and CEO of Equifax Inc.

Still, generally speaking, some of the same topics that the business community confronted in the 19th century, including basics such as water and schools, remain at the top of the agenda in the 21st century, along with newfangled needs such as roads.

In 1871, for example, the new Atlanta Chamber of Commerce launched an effort to build a public water system. In 1908, the Chamber backed a bond issue to pay for water works, schools and Grady Memorial Hospital.

Grady, in 2007, became the successful focus of a massive Chamber effort to save the hospital.

The Mercantile Association, which was renamed as the Chamber in 1860, was soon dissolved because of the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861, according to a time line provided by the organization. It was reorganized in April 1866 as a 20-member Board of Trade, with its biggest task being the reconstruction of Atlanta.

Even if the issues and the organization's name have changed with the needs of the times, the Chamber's mission hasn't, noted Smith, who wrote that the Chamber "has constantly reinvented itself" to meet changing challenges.

That point is also made in an excerpt from the book "Atlanta and Its Builders: A Comprehensive History of the Gate City of the South," which is cited in the annual report being released Thursday.

One passage reads: "At a very early period of her history, Atlanta recognized the importance of concerted action on the part of her most enterprising and public-spirited citizens in encouraging and fostering such enterprises, industries and institutions as make for the solid up-building and prosperity of a community ..."

According to the time line provided in the annual report, here are some of the key moments in the Chamber's history:

1859-1861: The Mercantile Association is formed in an effort to adjust freight rates between North and South. It is merged into the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce in 1860.

1866-1871: The Chamber is reorganized as a Board of Trade in 1866, and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce is born in 1871, focusing on municipal reforms and a public water system.

1893-1896: The Chamber starts to raise $2 million for the Cotton States and International Exposition.

1908-1909: The Chamber recommends a bond issue of $1.5 million for water works, sewage disposal, schools, Grady Memorial Hospital and a crematory.

1910-1911: A Chamber committee recommends widening Peachtree Street.

1920: The Chamber settles a street car strike of motormen, conductors and railway clerks.

1922: The Chamber launches the first Forward Atlanta advertising program. In 1929 the Forward Atlanta Commission spends $1 million advertising Atlanta to the nation.

1941: Delta Air Lines moves its headquarters to Atlanta, one of many major corporate relocations to the area.

1946: The Chamber organizes a campaign of public education.

1952: The Bonds for Progress campaign is organized by the Chamber to raise $12.7 million for expressway construction.

1964: Business leaders support a 1964 dinner in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Nobel Peace Prize. A regional rapid transit amendment passes that sets the stage for development of MARTA.

1978: The Chamber elects Jesse Hill Jr. as its first African-American president.

1982: The Chamber begins to target high-tech companies.

1991: UPS and Holiday Inn move headquarters to metro Atlanta, joining other relatively recent arrivals such as the American Cancer Society and Georgia-Pacific.

2002: The Chamber helps Mayor Shirley Franklin pass a sales tax to support a $3.2 billion overhaul of the city's water and sewer system.

2007: The Chamber convenes a task force to help save Grady Memorial Hospital.