The Howard County Chamber of Commerce (HCCC) marks its 50th anniversary in 2019.
Established when Columbia itself was just two years old, the Chamber has followed a similar trajectory of growth and evolution alongside its home of record.
“When I look at the founding documents, they were done on stencil paper and typewriter in multiple copies,” observed current HCCC President and CEO Leonardo McClarty. “Now everything we do is electronic, it’s on a computer, submitted online and filed electronically.”
It was a time, he said, when the speed of business was measured in days, and by most accounts, Columbia was a sleepy town and Howard was a sleepy county that business professionals passed through on their way to where the real action was, in Baltimore or Washington, DC.
How times – and the Chamber – have changed.
Ed Kasemeyer, former District 12 State Senator, served as a past Chamber president in 1980 and remembers the organization’s early days.
“We didn’t have a home or a permanent executive director,” he recalled. “We rented an office next to the Clark building for our monthly meetings.”
It was during his term that the Chamber hired its first full-time executive director, at that time a significant step in terms of expense and services when members still looked to each other for news, advice, business leads and leadership.
“Now it’s vibrant, highly sophisticated and focused in terms of the number of employees and their functions, and the depth they go to in terms of subject matter and skill,” Kasemeyer said.
Along the way, the Chamber evolved to take on new roles and become a significant player in the greater Baltimore economy, but still maintained its basic identity as a local business advocate.
“One role that hasn’t change is providing a way to get [members] substantive information to help them make decisions in a more timely fashion, which continues to add value,” McClarty said.
Along the way, HCCC has had a hand in creating some of the most meaningful quality of business life aspects the county has to offer.
“The Chamber was the original founder of Leadership Howard County,” McClarty noted. “It was an affiliate of the Chamber for a number of years and we were housed in the same space until it found its own office.”
In 1992, under the presidency of Orchard Development’s Chair and CEO Earl Armiger, the Chamber spun off another successful mission with the creation of the Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund.
“The economy was coming out of a recession, and we recognized that more jobs were being created by small business than by big businesses,” Armiger said. “Our idea was to get the commitment of eight banks to put up a combined $250,000 to start a low-interest loan fund for startups.”
When the Chamber asked for permission to use Rouse’s name, the Columbia developer challenged the organization to think bigger and target $1 million.
Two years later, Armiger said, the fund had amassed to $3 million.
By the year 2000, the fund had provided more than $1,000,000 in funding, leading to the creation of more than 250 new local jobs.
The Chamber also played a small but important role in the start of the Howard County Economic Development Authority (HCEDA) in 1992.
Dyan Brasington, now executive vice president for Economic Development for the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, led the HCEDA from its existence as a small county organization to its inception as a stand-alone authority.
“We consulted with many other economic development organizations, and the Chamber was very much a part of the conversations we were having,” she said. “Its leaders helped inform our decision making.”
These days, the Chamber’s role also extends to helping partners in education, and it serves the government contracting community by continuing to refine its GovConnects program.
To mark the milestone, the Chamber plans to introduce the anniversary theme into events that it already has in place, rather than create stand-alone events that compete for attention.
“Our annual signature event, typically held the first Friday in October, will be a Saturday event and a black tie gala,” McClarty said. “We’ll plan to do something special with our annual meeting in May.”