Metro Chamber’s regional clout at crossroads


The Metro Atlanta Chamber has been in the middle of some of the region’s most controversial, big-ticket issues during Sam Williams’ tenure, including:

Georgia flag: The state's old flag contained a Confederate battle emblem that the Chamber and others considered bad for business. The Chamber lobbied legislators who voted to replace the flag in 2001.

Grady Hospital: Atlanta's main hospital was deeply in debt when the chamber created a task force in 2007 to rally support, change management and find non-profit benefactors to save the hospital.

Water wars: The chamber joined then-Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2010 to fight a judge's ruling restricting Atlanta's water withdrawals from Lake Lanier. The U.S. Supreme Court essentially sided with the chamber's position last year.

Atlanta Public Schools: The chamber helped recruit former superintendent Beverly Hall who was recently indicted for conspiring to cheat on standardized test scores. The chamber earlier commissioned a "blue ribbon" report that downplayed the cheating scandal.

T-SPLOST: The chamber lobbied legislators to approve a referendum for road and rail projects. It also raised $8 million to advocate for the sales tax only to see it roundly defeated.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber, a mainstay in Atlanta civic life for generations, aspires to have sweeping influence far beyond rubber chicken lunches and ground breakings with hard-hatted boosters.

It has helped lead drives to change the state flag and save Grady Memorial Hospital. It has stubbed its toe on other issues, soft-pedaling the Atlanta schools cheating scandal and pushing a regional transportation tax that voters soundly rejected.

Now the organization is at a crossroads. Longtime president Sam Williams, 68, last week announced his retirement around the end of the year.

His departure - and the chamber’s mixed record - raise the question of whether the group can continue to play an effective role in attacking the region’s large and seemingly intractable problems.

Williams' yet-unnamed predecessor faces monumental challenges, not the least of which is to restore the chamber's region-wide credibility. Competition for business and jobs is fiercer than ever. Moreover, the chamber itself no longer dominates the region's economic development efforts, with the city of Atlanta, state agencies and neighboring counties playing the recruitment game themselves.

“We have to figure out exactly what role the chamber will have,” said John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises and a past chamber chairman. “Everybody is stepping back a bit and figuring out what we’ve learned and where we are going from here.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who said she worked well with Williams despite myriad disagreements, said no other organization has the size, clout and wealth to get things done across the increasingly fractured region of five million residents.

“It would be a mistake for the chamber not to proceed given the credibility it has had over the years working with elected officials on public policy at the state and local levels,” Franklin said. “But the question is how deeply should they be involved?”

Neither Williams nor any board member predicts the chamber will tuck tail and avoid the tough problems besetting the region, though it isn’t expected to take on any big new public policy causes until Williams’ replacement is on board.

Broader roles

Twelve Atlanta businessmen organized the Mercantile Association in 1859 to combat usurious freight rates imposed by Northern wholesalers. After a hiatus during the Civil War, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce embraced public works projects and business recruitment.

Its members settled a street car strike in the 1920s. In 1964, it rallied the business community to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Business development, though, has been the private, nonprofit’s calling card. Sears, Roebuck and Co., General Motors and Delta Air Lines were early recruits. UPS, Georgia-Pacific and the American Cancer Society followed. First Data, Novelis and PulteGroup are of more recent recruitment vintage.

Williams joined the chamber in December 1996, soon after the city’s touchstone event — the Summer Olympics — had ended. A list of “accomplishments” released Tuesday as Williams announced his retirement, claims the recruitment of more than 700 companies to the region with 75,000 direct jobs during his tenure.

“Among their regional chamber peers, Atlanta is clearly seen as a leader and has been for a decade or two, “ said Ian Scott, a spokesman for the American Chamber of Commerce Executives, the nonprofit professional association for chamber officials nationwide.

Scott cites the chamber’s “diverse membership that includes Fortune 500 companies, small and emerging businesses and start-ups all investing in their mission.”

The Metro Atlanta Chamber’s 4,000 members pay dues and avail themselves of networking events, business development programs and, if desired, overseas business trips.

In fiscal 2011, the chamber raised $13.2 million in revenue from annual dues, event income and corporate pledges, according to the nonprofit’s tax filing. That’s more than double the amount raised by most peer organizations, including chambers in Chicago, Los Angeles and Dallas. The Greater Houston Partnership raised $15 million in 2010.

Williams’ compensation totaled $778,000 in 2011 – well above counterparts in Chicago ($436,000), Los Angeles ($489,000) and Houston $483,000).

“As with all leaders who step forward, you cannot please everyone,” said Eric Tanenblatt, a senior managing director with McKenna, Long & Aldridge and a former Chamber board member. “But his contributions far outweigh specific issues people may have with him.”

‘Part of the problem’

Not everybody agrees the chamber’s clout should go much beyond bringing in business.

The chamber “believes it can control major institutions in the city and the politics of the city,” said state Sen. Vincent Fort, an Atlanta Democrat who is often at odds with the power structure. “But they over-stepped… . They became part of the problem with the (Atlanta Public Schools) cheating scandal and with the T-SPLOST” transportation tax plan.

Public education — a priority of relocating companies — has been a chamber cause for decades. The chamber recruited Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was recently indicted, along with 34 other system employees, for conspiracy to cheat to pump up student performance on standardized tests. All have pleaded not guilty.

As the scandal widened the chamber, worried about the impact on Atlanta’s reputation, commissioned a report that downplayed the cheating scandal.

“I look forward to the disposition of this in the courts,” Williams said Thursday. “Let’s talk about what the future (of APS) is going to be.”

Williams and various chamber members say the organization will remain involved in APS affairs, a prospect that irks Fort and others. Ex-Mayor Franklin says the chamber has no choice but to remain involved in education.

“We need all hands on deck when it comes to education and the chamber is a very powerful strategic partner for improving education in the region,” she said.

The chamber convinced legislators to let voters decide whether to tax themselves to pay for road and and rail projects. The chamber raised millions of dollars for a vote-yes campaign.

“They screwed up. They had an elitist project list that was doomed from its outset,” said Neill Herring, a Sierra Club lobbyist. “It’s just wishful thinking that they’ll go away. They need to learn how to be a team player, to learn democracy. They’re not very good at that. But they’re real good at telling people what they should be doing.”

Williams and the chamber though, are widely applauded for efforts to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag; for saving Grady Hospital; and for lobbying on behalf of the region during the water wars with Florida and Alabama.

Forward Atlanta

While the chamber regroups on regional issues, it’s full speed ahead in business recruitment and job creation as the metro economy slowly recovers from the recession and housing bust. The chamber has raised $28 million (out of an anticipated $30 million) from corporations and foundations for its ballyhooed Forward Atlanta project.

The emphasis is on boosting prospects for start-up companies, fostering collaboration between businesses and universities and recruiting biotech, telecomm and health care information industries.

“The competition out there is tough,” said Coca-Cola Enterprises’ Brock, “and we want to make sure we maintain our edge in being business friendly.”

The chamber has help — or competition — from myriad business-focused groups that have cropped up in recent years. Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development authority, targets industries and companies, arranges financing and sponsors overseas recruitment trips which were once the purview of the metro chamber.

County chambers, including Gwinnett’s, do similar work. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce, a statewide economic development group, has added staff and clout, particularly at the Capitol.

“There are more and more community operations than ever before and that is emblematic of the balkanization that characterizes much of our region at a time when solutions require that we actually work together,” said A.D. Frazier, the chief operating officer for the Olympic Games who runs a private equity firm.

“There’s got to be some entity that bridges this chasm that sometimes divides us. The chamber is as likely a candidate as any.”

J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.