When the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1906, Alexandria was a small Southern town with a spartan infrastructure and few amenities. Many roads were unpaved and streetlights were an uncommon sight in Old Town. Developing the 17th-century port of Alexandria into a 20th-century city would prove to be a difficult process.
“There are a lot of basic things that we take for granted that didn’t exist back then,” said Jim Mackay, curator of a new exhibit at the Lyceum that celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the Chamber of Commerce. “This is a time when Alexandria probably wasn’t entirely recovered from the Civil War.”
The history of Alexandria’s chamber was chronicled extensively in 1956, when the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary. The “golden anniversary” of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce included a weeklong series of events — culminating in the opening of a new headquarters at 400 South Washington St. A special program was published to commemorate the anniversary.
“The truth of the saying ‘in union there is strength’ has been strikingly exemplified in our experience of the past few weeks, a protest from an individual or firm carries but little weight and receives but scant consideration, but a protest from an organized body representing practically the entire business interests of a city carries incalculable weight and demands and receives especial consideration,” wrote Secretary J.T. Preston in the 1907 annual report, which was reprinted in the 1956.
IN ITS FIRST 100 years, the Chamber of Commerce has supported local projects and opposed new taxes. It advocated a city-manager form of government, creating a catalyst for lasting change. Today, the organization of city government in Alexandria reflects the chamber’s will.
“This organization has had such an impact on our hometown,” said Lonnie Rich, former City Council member and incoming chairman of the Chamber of Commerce. “They have taken a leadership role in every facet of our lives. The citizens of Alexandria owe a debt of gratitude to the Chamber of Commerce.”
Councilman Rob Krupicka agreed, adding that the chamber’s influence has been a positive force for change in the community. Krupicka cited the chamber’s backing of the arts and its support for open-space acquisition as examples of the organization’s forward-thinking agenda.
“I don’t think this is a traditional chamber of commerce,” Krupicka said. “This chamber has a long history of being a progressive and inclusive organization.”
The chamber currently has about 1,000 business members who employ more than 49,000 people. It’s governed by a 33-member board of directors, and it’s the only Northern Virginia Chamber to be accredited by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
-- Making Alexandria A Better Place to Live and Work
Business organizations are not new to Alexandria. The Marine Coffee House was founded in 1808, the Alexandria Board of Trade in the 1880s, and the Business Men’s League in the1890s. While these organizations ultimately disappeared, local merchants at the turn of the century still saw a need for a business organization. They founded the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce in September 1906 with W.A. Smoot as its elected president.
The Chamber was formed under the belief that they could make Alexandria a better place to live and work. Throughout its 100 year history, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce has served not only as a voice for business, but as a leader helping the city continue to prosper and grow and ensure a high quality of life for all Alexandrians.
-- Commerce & Retail
In the early 20th century, Alexandria was still operating as a vital port facility, which made lobbying for continued harbor improvements a top priority for the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. Active support of street improvements, lighting and paving also helped to improve life in the city.
By the mid-century mark, the Chamber turned its focus on urban renewal of Old Town’s chief commercial thoroughfares and the city’s lack of sufficient modern office space. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it started cleaning upper King Street of “seedy” businesses with the help of the City Manager and the City Council. The 1980s saw new programs initiated, such as the “Chamber Marketplace” to showcase and support local businesses. In 1999, the Chamber started supporting the Small Business Development Center to stimulate the economy and promote new job potential. In the 21st century, the Chamber was instrumental in bringing the federal Patent & Trademark Office to Alexandria and exploring other growth opportunities.
-- Community Focus
During the Chamber’s first decade, it reached a membership of 700, making it one of the largest Chambers in the United States for a city Alexandria’s size. During its 100 years, it has remained actively involved and created its own community-based structure. In 1918, President R. L. Payne formed bureaus to represent the various trades within the organization to allow delegates to speak for the whole and speed the decision process. In 1975, Dr. Linda Michael became the first women president of the Chamber, and that decade also saw the formation of the Minority Involvement Committee.
In 1984, the Chamber launched Leadership Alexandria Institute. This program was revived in 2003 to foster a greater understanding of the critical issues facing the community and to encourage and develop corporate and civic leadership for the betterment of the city. Most recently, the Chamber was instrumental in urging the city to hire a Business Facilitator to work with small businesses to ease the process of gaining business permits and approvals.
-- Tourism & Civic Pride
The Alexandria Chamber of Commerce is a civic-minded organization that cares about the city it serves and actively celebrates its history. In 1922-1923, the Chamber raised money to place plaques on 16 historic properties in and near Alexandria, including Gadsby’s Tavern, the Alexandria Academy, Presbyterian Meeting House, Ramsay House and the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee.
In 1948, the Chamber conducted a campaign to raise money to restore the Friendship Fire House. The following year, it helped celebrate Alexandria’s Bicentennial, organizing and sponsoring many activities, and helped celebrate one hundred years as an independent city in 1952. Two years later, in 1954, the Chamber sponsored the creation of the Alexandria Tourist Council. Since that time and on many occasions, the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce has helped the city celebrate and share its heritage with those who live here and come to visit.
In the early years, the Chamber supported city growth through annexation. During 1906-1908, Alexandria expanded into land west of Peyton Street to Union Station. In 1911, it pushed toward Potomac Yards. Then in 1915, it took over land south to Hunting Creek. Once the boundaries were expanded, the Chamber looked toward making Alexandria’s government more effective. In 1918, it encouraged a change of city leadership by trustees and aldermen (a holdover from the 18th century) to governing by elected officials and a professional City Manager. By 1921, the Chamber’s petition was successful and the next year Alexandria hired its first City Manager.
During World Wars I and II, the Chamber played an extensive role within the city. It helped bring shipbuilding back to the city and acted as a liaison between local businesses and government, especially regarding rationing and trade restrictions. It also addressed severe housing shortages brought on by the mass influx of defense workers to the Naval Torpedo Station in the 1940s. In 1951, the Chamber opposed going to a ward system for electing Council members. In 1955, the Chamber was a leader in pushing waterfront development by converting buildings from government use to private use. Since then, the Chamber has been instrumental in regularly bringing together elected officials and local businesses in programs such as the Candidates Lunch (launched in the 1970s). During the 1990s, the Chamber continued its role as the voice of Alexandria Business before the City Council and emphasized its role as a cooperative partner in the business and civic life of the city.
-- Environment & Quality of Life
Throughout the years, the Chamber has worked on improving the quality of daily life in Alexandria. In the early years, it fought for farmers, ranchers and the poor. It raised money for the Red Cross and assisted the U.S. Public Health Service in inoculating residents against typhoid and smallpox.
Beginning in 1914, the Chamber raised concerns about the lack of affordable housing, an issue the Chamber still actively supports today. A few years later, the Chamber supported the posting of signs for street names, housing numbers, good sidewalks and street lighting so the U.S. Postal Service could deliver mail to the city’s residents.
In 1947, the Chamber started an annual tree planting campaign to honor their past presidents. The first trees were planted in front of the Kate Waller Barrett Library on Queen Street. This campaign, during which 25 to 40 trees were planted annually, lasted until 1958 when the effort was taken over by the city government. The Chamber has been active in so many aspects of community life: In 1925, the Chamber sponsored a meeting to establish the Shenandoah National Park; in 1939, it petitioned the city with 2200 names to establish the Department of Parks and Playgrounds; and in 1952, the Chamber petitioned the City Council to construct a sewage disposal plant. In 1967, it worked with Del Ray to launch a 30-year revitalization plan for Mount Vernon Avenue.
In 1974, it promoted a commuter car-pooling service to ease congestion and launched the Chamber’s Home Repair Task Force in 1975 to help elderly and low income residents with repairs and improvements. Throughout the years, the Chamber has recognized outstanding public service with such awards as the George Washington Leadership medals, the annual Public Safety Valor Awards, and the Philanthropy Summit.
-- Education & Arts
Support of the arts and education has always been a vital part of the Chamber’s mission, beginning with an appeal to the City Council for a new high school in 1914. Since then, the Chamber has worked for educational improvements and expansion of the arts. In 1954, it sponsored the first “business education day” program, which attracted more than 60 new teachers and more than 80 the following year. In 1966, the Chamber launched an annual seminar on economics for high school students, which continues today with the Summer Economic Institute By 1975, the Chamber began hosting an annual reception for new teachers in the public schools. In 2004, the Chamber supported the new T.C. Williams High School.
By the early 1980s, the Chamber created the “Alexandria Business Cares” campaign, which later became the Alexandria Education Partnership. It also encouraged many businesses and professionals to support a wide variety of non-profit, charitable activities in the city, including tutoring programs in local schools. In addition to educational outreach, the Chamber also sponsored creation of the Performing Arts Committee, which has grown into today’s Alexandria Arts Forum.