Despite arriving this year at the ripe old age of 175, the Greater Memphis Chamber still has a spring in its step.
When the chamber blows out the candles, so to speak, during its milestone bash Friday, April 12, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the event will underscore the organization’s storied history, which predates the Civil War. This year also sees the continuation of the chamber’s push to be more of a civic force in the community, helping to bring together government and private businesses.
The chamber is in the middle of assembling a group of at least 100 business leaders, which the chamber’s leadership will turn to for things like advice and strategy sessions. The chamber currently has recruited a little more than 60 of that 100, and the addition of those executives will give them an opportunity to have a voice in the chamber’s agenda.
Two businessmen, Col. Nathaniel Anderson and Louis Trezevant, founded the chamber in 1838.
“They decided that Memphis needed a chamber of commerce to develop a new city that was growing on the Mississippi River, and they saw tremendous advantage for the future,” said Greater Memphis Chamber president and CEO John Moore. “There have always been, throughout great moments in our history, private sector leadership that’s stepped up and wanted to give back, and what you see now is us really getting back to that model.
“We don’t need better leaders or new leaders. What we need are just lots more leaders. We want a larger group of engaged people with deep roots in this community.”
The chamber’s engagement in the community is another piece of what the group has done for 175 years, in addition to bringing business leaders together. Forty-five years ago this month, for example, the day after the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the chamber convened a board meeting.
Minutes show the chamber got an update on the sanitation workers strike and decided to see if the chamber could help bring the respective parties together toward steering things to a settlement. A committee was formed to call on city officials to express the chamber’s concern over the strike and to offer the chamber’s services in helping reach a settlement.
The chamber president at the time, Thomas Faires, also suggested that the business community provide a reward of $25,000 to anyone furnishing information leading to the capture and conviction of King’s murderer. That would supplement rewards being offered by the Commercial Appeal and Memphis Press-Scimitar newspapers, as well as the city of Memphis.
It was moved, seconded and resolved that the chamber would underwrite up to $12,500 of that $25,000.
The chamber also released a statement directed at church ministers in Shelby County, asking that it be read from the pulpit during Sunday services following King’s death. The statement reads, in part, “The business community through the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce is engaging in a series of meetings this weekend which are resulting in productive, high-level plans to expand and enlarge programs to improve the employment, work status and advancement opportunities of all citizens … to the end that harmony, goodwill and progress in this community will be established and perpetuated.”
Clifford Stockton, senior adviser for logistics and public policy, said the chamber had its work cut out for it in the years following King’s death.
“I pursued the NAACP convention for five years,” Stockton said, an example of projects he worked on. “I met with their planning committee year after year and we finally got a yes, and it was the first convention at the Memphis Cook Convention Center in July 1976 when it opened.
“It was hard to convince them to come here because after the assassination, nobody wanted to come here. They had a very successful convention here in Memphis. Those are the things we had to do to work in order to get people to look at Memphis differently.”
That notion of getting people to look at Memphis differently also sometimes is found in the chamber’s economic development efforts. Stockton recalled a private gathering years ago with International Paper officials when the company expanded its presence here.
He recalled a chamber team picking the International Paper executives up from the airport and taking them to the top floor of Clark Tower, where everyone ate a late breakfast and the International Paper attendees were introduced to real estate brokers.
“We took them on a tour of the city – looked at any aspect of the city they wanted to look at,” Stockton said. “In 1985 they came to Memphis to look at Memphis as a possible location to relocate their operations center. We as a chamber worked with their real estate brokers and developers. We assisted them with (looking at) property, homes, schools, neighborhoods – just the total community. That’s what our role as a chamber was – to sell them on Memphis.”