Escape From the Chamber of Horrors

Business leaders in Wisconsin sidestep traditional economic development booster clubs.

Anyone who has had to sit through an annual Chamber of Commerce dinner knows the drill. It's pretty much what it was a generation ago: gray suits, gray roast beef, and a gray drone of speakers grousing about too many taxes and too much regulation.

Globalization notwithstanding, most of business is still local. But those pillars of local business, the Chambers of Commerce, aren't very responsive or relevant anymore to many executives. So in some cities, a new sort of organization -- one that appeals to progressive businesses while nurturing community growth -- is winning traction.

Jon Hain runs two businesses, a coffeehouse and a record label, in Madison, Wisconsin. Instead of joining the Greater Madison Chamber, he and a like-minded cohort in 1996 formed a consortium of local businesses and entrepreneurs that created a formal exchange of a local currency called Madison Hours. Merchants accept Hours, each worth $10, the base wage for an hour's labor, as payment for their goods and services. The idea is to encourage local consumers and businesses to trade with one another instead of with a multinational conglomerate that will whisk the money out of town.

The granddaddy of the local hours movement is in Ithaca, New York, where Paul Glover, a Green Party activist with a degree in city management, adopted the strategy to combat unemployment during the 1991 recession. Fourteen years later, Ithaca Hours also runs a successful "health assurance" cooperative that offers basic coverage for things such as broken bones and emergency-room visits for $100 a year. Ithaca's business community has embraced the idea; in fact, Glover long since has joined the local chamber, which accepts Hours as admission to its events.

In all, there are about 20 local "hours" efforts across the United States and some three more in Canada, but there's no semblance of a national organization. The closest thing is BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies), which aims to create a database of network members (it has 19 local networks so far), so consumers anywhere can support the "buy local" philosophy behind it. Yet cofounder Judy Wicks admits that it may take years to offer members the perks, such as group health insurance, that many chambers offer to attract independent businesses.

Indeed, there may be limits to the local autonomy movement. Hain says he thinks an area needs both high underemployment and a sizable progressive base to make a local exchange sizzle. But these movements clearly demonstrate a measure of pluck and creative thinking. And, as Hain says, "I can't think of a single business owner who doesn't want to pay employees better and protect the environment." Can your local chamber do that?

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