By Guest Columnist CHARLES H. VAN RYSSELBERGE, a 40-year Chamber of Commerce professional who served as executive vice president of the Atlanta Chamber from 1988 to 1993
After reading your two articles on the possible sale of the Metro Atlanta Chamber building, I wanted to share a few thoughts and examples of my experience with the role of stand-alone Chamber buildings and their visibility.
For the past 40 years, I have been been a Chamber professional. I left Atlanta to go to Oklahoma City for eight years and then the Charleston, S.C. Chamber for nine years years until retirement.
* In Shreveport, Louisiana, where I was the Chamber’s CEO before coming to Atlanta, the Chamber is housed in a very stately and classic building that was formerly the main downtown library. It makes a strong business community statement. Being based in a high profile location, it says the Chamber plays a significant role in the community.
* In Oklahoma City, where I was also the Chamber CEO, our Chamber moved into a standalone building in 1993 – in the heart of downtown and on the premier business street at 123 Park Ave.
In front of the building, right on the sidewalk, was a very big green Exclamation Point, intended to send a message that this is a place of action, excitement, and results. Today, the statue is painted to promote the NBA Team – the OKC Thunder.
Oklahoma City is a model example of what a public/private partnership can produce. In 1993, the Chamber and City Hall launched a vision that has led to more than $5 billion dollars being spent in downtown OKC alone, in the past 20 years. OKC has, for the past several years, one of the lowest unemployment rates among all major metro cities in the United States.
* In Charleston, S.C., where I was the Chamber CEO, we had the premier spot and premier signage on our headquarters building. Charleston is the oldest Chamber in America dating back to 1773 and established before the Declaration of Independence.
The Charleston Chamber building, which also houses the World Trade Center, became our new headquarters location about 18 months before my retirement.
The leadership in all of these places understands the value of spotlighting its name and brand and physical positioning.
A Chamber is different from most all other non-profits. It needs to be visible. I would hope that if the Metro Atlanta Chamber sells its building, that it would secure another prominent spot in Centennial Olympic Park. But if it moves into a downtown building, I would hope that it would have the premier office space for accessibility and the premier signage on that building.
The Metro Atlanta Chamber deserves no less!
It is important to remember that the Atlanta Chamber, was rejuvenated after the Civil War by Henry Grady, which then influenced Atlanta Chamber business folks to stage the Cotton States Exhibition in 1895.
In 1925, Ivan Allen Sr. started the first national advertising campaign for Atlanta – through the Chamber – with $1.5 million dollars.
In the early 1960s, Ivan Allen Jr. copied his father with the first Forward Atlanta Campaign, raising $3 million dollars, for national advertising.
In 1988, Billy Payne ran out of money he needed for the Olympic bid presentation before the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Jerry Bartels, then president of the Atlanta Chamber, handled the logistics to publish the color booklet for $50,000 that was used to win the U.S. bid in May 1988.
Two months later, Billy Payne could still not get the business community to take the bid seriously, and he had only two months to prepare to begin selling Atlanta to the International Olympic Committee in Korea.
But once again, Billy Payne had no money.
Jerry Bartels then gave him $125,000 to use for a three-week strategic marketing plan. So the Atlanta Chamber was responsible for funding the initial international campaign for the 1996 Olympic Games.
I was in the meeting room when this happened, simply as a witness to history, when Billy Payne made the request, and Jerry gave him the money from Forward Atlanta’s marketing funds.
Months later, Billy Payne and Andrew Young, were able to have the time to launch a major campaign, headed by Ivan Allen III, which then raised $7 million dollars for the successful bid.
It is hard to believe that anything deserves to unseat the current, spotlighted physical position of importance that the Metro Atlanta Chamber holds today – as a centerpiece in downtown Atlanta.
There is a history that Atlanta’s leadership wanted the world to know who it is and where it is.
And there is no other organization than the Atlanta Chamber that can play the lead role in doing that.
Hopefully that role and so many other roles that the Chamber plays in Atlanta will not be minimized by using a wrecking ball on the building as if it has outlived its usefulness.
To read the previous two columns about the Metro Atlanta Chamber and its possible move, please click on the following links: