The chamber at 100

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1904 by 93 Chicago merchants and manufacturers, including Chicago founding fathers like Marshall Fields, Bell Telephone Co. (now SBC), Northern Trust, Harris Trust and Carson Pirie Scott.

Over the past century, it has worked to protect the interests of Chicago businesses and boost the region’s economy. Some of its highlights include helping to organize a group of business leaders — called the “Secret Six” — to fight Al Capone and the rising tide of organized crime and corruption in Chicago public office.

It also helped establish the Regional Transportation Authority to improve public transportation in northeastern Illinois.

In 2001, the chamber, along with city leaders, successfully lobbied Boeing to relocate its corporate headquarters to Chicago from Seattle, making it the city’s largest public company. Most recently, it launched the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, an affiliate of the chamber, to serve as a single resource for Chicago’s emerging businesses.

The chamber’s mission is to make the Chicago area “the most business-friendly region in the country,” no small task considering the challenges facing its manufacturing base.

Chamber CEO Jerry Roper spoke with Smart Business about the challenges facing the region and the chamber’s efforts to fight taxes and encourage entrepreneurism.

What has the chamber done this year to make Chicago “the most business-friendly region in the country?”

We defended the right of commercial and industrial property taxpayers to appeal to the state Property Tax Appeals Board (PTAB). Legislation was introduced in the General Assembly that would have prevented businesses in Cook County from appealing unfair assessments to PTAB — a right that businesses in every other county in Illinois enjoy. Such a bill would have cost Cook County businesses millions of dollars.

(We also gained) approval of the O’Hare Modernization Program, which will add another runway at O’Hare International Airport, reconfigure seven others and provide western roadway access to the airport. Chicago’s airports inject over $40 billion annually into the economy and impact over 500,000 jobs.

There is nothing more important to securing the region’s economic future than improving O’Hare, and the chamber continues to consider this one of its top priorities.

We continued to review and monitor the state of Illinois, Cook County and the city of Chicago’s budget to ensure that government is there to serve the needs of the business community. In particular, we are continuing to show examples of how newly enacted taxes, fees and other costs affect the day-to-day operations of employers across the region.

We expanded the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, an affiliate of the chamber serving Chicagoland’s emerging businesses, with new programs and services but, most importantly, linked our emerging businesses with the more established corporations in the region.

What are some economic/business challenges facing the region, and how can the chamber help overcome them?

There are a number of critical economic and business challenges facing the Chicagoland region. Our unemployment remains high, so putting people back to work is a major challenge.

Another challenge is convincing state and local governments that their tax, fee and other cost structures dramatically impact the business climate. Too often, elected officials believe that their actions do not affect the company bottom line and that there will always be the ability to ask for more. At some point, the well runs dry, and these companies consider leaving, cut jobs and investment, or go out of business. Making sure decision-makers understand this is a challenge in our current business climate.

What issues are your members most concerned about?

The chamber’s members are concerned about tax and fee levels, particularly Illinois’ overreliance on property tax.

Another major concern is the rising cost of health care. Many businesses simply cannot offer health insurance at current rates, and those that do provide health coverage are taking steps to reduce costs.

Employees are paying higher co-pays and deductibles, and certain services are not being covered. Health insurance rates have increased between 10 and 18 percent annually over the last several years, and those costs are extremely difficult to cover in this economy.

Our members are also concerned about the growing congestion on our roads, highways, railways and in the skies. One of the chamber’s top priorities is working to ensure that businesses are able to move goods and people, as well as their work force, across the country and around the world in an efficient manner.

How has the region’s entrepreneurial environment changed in recent years? Are we seeing fewer start-ups than in the late 1990s?

The difficult economic times in recent years have not given many people the encouragement they need to begin their own entrepreneurial venture. Many people are not satisfied with the unstable nature of the corporate world and would like to go into business for themselves.

We see that trend growing. But there are still many issues confronting regional entrepreneurs: access to customers and markets, access to capital and adequate access to infrastructure — both physical and virtual.

Three years ago, the chamber, together with AT&T, the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, and 11 other organizations, launched the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center to serve as a one-stop resource for Chicagoland’s emerging businesses. Since then, the center has served more than 2,000 emerging businesses and expanded its offerings to provide emerging companies access to one-to-one counseling, networking, and peer learning from more established Chicago area companies.

With the center’s help, these companies have gone on to secure funding, form strategic partnerships, win major contracts and make informed decisions that continue to grow their businesses.

The center has a unique combination of programs and services and connections to area businesses and organizations that make it a powerful, single resource for Chicago’s growing number of entrepreneurs and emerging businesses.

How is the chamber active in the statehouse and in Washington in terms of lobbying for legislation and funding for Chicago businesses?

The chamber maintains an active government relations staff that works not only in Springfield with the General Assembly, but with the city of Chicago and the local governments in the six counties of northeastern Illinois.

We have two registered lobbyists on staff, and I am also registered. In addition, we occasionally contract for additional help at the state and local level. Politics in Illinois is so closely tied to the condition of the business climate that our members believe it is essential we remain actively involved in the political process.

While we do not track the daily schedule of Congress, we maintain active involvement in coalitions around specific issues — transportation, in particular — that keep us involved and informed about federal actions.

What are the chamber’s plans for 2004?

In its next 100 years, the chamber is focused on furthering entrepreneurship and economic opportunity in the Chicagoland region.

We recently announced a new chamber chairman, Bob Crawford, president of Lake Forest-based Brook Furniture Co. who is an entrepreneur in his own right, to help lead the chamber into its next 100 years.

We recently appointed the first-ever president to the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, Mayor Richard Daley’s former technology adviser, David Weinstein, and the first-ever Center Board of top Chicago business leaders. David is a serial entrepreneur and a thought leader on entrepreneurship and emerging business who is leading the center to new heights. How to reach: Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, (312) 494-6700 or