A century ago, the Gallatin Area Chamber of Commerce was a start-up. Today, this influential organization continues to provide vital support to the community.
What is a Chamber of Commerce?
For Kim Baker, CEO of the Gallatin Area Chamber of Commerce, a Chamber of Commerce is always more than meets the eye. “A Chamber is a network of businesses who are interested in working together for a common goal,” explained Kim, who has been heading the Chamber since 2015. “Ultimately, we’re a liaison between our business members and the community. We connect the two in a way that brings mutual success for everyone.”
Businesses gathering for mutual support is nothing new. Bands of traders have existed for millennia. At first, these groups sought common protection against enemies. Later, they worked to govern the conduct of trade and influence legislative matters. “These bands of traders eventually coalesced into the first Chambers of Commerce,” Kim explained. “In fact, the first known use of the term ‘Chamber of Commerce’ was in 1599 in Marseilles, France.”
In the United States, adversity was often the impetus for the formation of a Chamber. For instance, the establishment of the New York State Chamber, was a result of the Stamp Tax Act passed by Parliament in 1765. Forced to organize in self-defense to fight the Act, New York tradesmen quickly perceived the advantages of such an association.
Early Chambers organized markets, made and enforced rules of trade, protected goods in transit, and even operated their own trading floors. The emergence of the Chamber as a community organization came much later as business leaders began to realize that their own prosperity depended upon the development of prosperous, healthy, and happy communities. From the late 1800s on, the growth of the Chamber movement in the United States was rapid. As a result of a suggestion by President William Howard Taft that some system of national cooperation between business and government be established, the Chamber of Commerce of the United States was created on April 22, 1912. It was a bold new step in the organization of commercial enterprise. In the following decades, Chambers of Commerce sprung up in thousands of communities across the nation, including Gallatin. “When you look at what was going on in Gallatin in 1921, things weren’t so different from today,” Kim noted. “World War I was ending. A pandemic was winding down. New communication technologies like the radio were disrupting the status quo. Racial tensions were high. The headlines then were basically the same as they are now.”
The business environment of the early 1920s was no less dynamic than it is today. “Many companies that are now household names were start-ups between 1918 and 1922,” Kim added, citing Zenith, RCA, Eddie Bauer, Perdue Farms, Rubbermaid, and Lowe’s as examples. “Adversity spurred the launch of many companies during those years and Chambers of Commerce provided support as they grew.”
A hundred years after its launch, the Gallatin Area Chamber of Commerce continues to be an engine for business development, especially in the wake of COVID-19. “One of our goals is to support people as they launch businesses they dreamed up during the quarantine, reinvent businesses that were negatively impacted during the pandemic, and help people who were laid off to pivot their careers,” Kim said. “When the Gallatin Chamber is celebrating its 200th anniversary, we want to be celebrating the businesses that had their beginnings in 2021.”
The past 100 years have been a time of constant invention and reinvention for the Gallatin Chamber. Many of the programs launched by the Gallatin Chamber in the past, such as the Main Street Festive, the city’s image campaign, and public WIFI on the square, continue to bear fruit today.
What’s ahead for the Gallatin Chamber? In addition to continuing serving as a catalyst for community development, a support system for existing businesses, and an information hub for visitors, Kim sees the Chamber doing even more to incubate new businesses. “With programs like StartUp Gallatin, we’re creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem that stacks the deck for new business success,” Kim said. “I think that Gallatin will be even more of a hub for entrepreneurs in the future, especially in the tech space. The Facebook data center will be a magnet for creatives of all kinds, and I see the Chamber’s services evolving to support their success. We’ve reinvented ourselves before—and we’ll do it again.”