When the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce set about devising its charter 50 years ago, the community’s biggest concerns were transportation-related.
“I found some old articles from back then talking about this new Shirley Highway that was being built and plans for the Fairfax County Parkway,” said Nancy-jo Manney, executive director of the Chamber. “The parkway wasn’t as big a worry, though. It was supposed to be finished in two years.”
In the half-century between the beginning of Shirley Highway and the completion of the Mixing Bowl project, Springfield has grown from a bedroom community outside Washington to a suburb ready to be revitalized, Manney said.
The Chamber began as a group of businessmen fighting a proposed business tax and grew into an organization that reaches into five magisterial districts with interests ranging from sign makers and gift basket producers to the more technologically-minded.
“Our members are not so much the mom and pop shops anymore, but that has to do with the fact that face of suburban Springfield is becoming more urban,” Manney said. “Now our larger numbers are in government contracting, hotels.”
Make-up of the membership has changed as well, as more women have infiltrated what used to be a male-dominated world, she said.
Bobbie Mae Johnson, who served as the first executive director of the Chamber, used to do the paperwork required in her basement until she resigned the position after 30 years.
“One of the lawyers [in the Tower Center where she worked] had suggested we have a merchant’s association,” Johnson said. “They were so successful, they decided to form a chamber of commerce, but it was still in little law office.”
Real estate was booming in the late 1950s and some development concerns were among the first issues tackled by the Chamber, Johnson said.
“The lawyers were dealing with the issue of the first 7-Eleven that came in on Backlick Road,” Johnson said. “They looked tacky. We insisted they be covered in brick, and it worked.”
Manney and Johnson are mutually respectful of each other. Manney said she still calls on Johnson for historical information; Johnson said Manney is “one of the best things to ever happen” to the Chamber.
Johnson will be profiled in a later issue of the Chamber’s newsletter, Manney said, to thank her for her continued services.
Manney no longer works in a basement, as the Chamber moved to a 1,000 square-foot office on Backlick Road in the 1990s, said Barry Brady, a former president.
“Springfield used to be a pass-through community and I wanted it to be a destination,” said Brady, who grew up in Springfield and got his start when he built the Comfort Inn in 1983. “The Chamber has continued to grow and grow and I’m glad to see that. Today we have a variety of people involved, small and large businesses and everyone interacts.”
Looking to the future, Brady believes the upcoming changes with the KSI midtown project and the influx of 18,000 workers to the Engineer Proving Ground (EPG) because of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) changes will propel Springfield into the 21st century in a way the founders of the Chamber couldn’t have imagined.
“Fifty years from now, with the technology advances we have afforded to us, can you imagine where we’ll be in five years,” Brady asked. “Have you seen the Jetsons? Anything is possible.”
CURRENT PRESIDENT Vince Stubbs agreed that incoming development will help re-envision the future of Springfield and bring in a new wave of businesses to benefit the community.
“One of my goals for this year is to continue to be a positive voice for change in the Springfield business community and its residents,” said Stubbs, who also hopes to increase membership in the Chamber to better serve the 80 square miles in encompasses.
Including members of the community will help the Chamber move forward with a better sense of what residents want and need, he said. It also helps that many of the Chamber’s board members are involved in other boards and committees around the region, like homeowner’s associations or civic associations or members of the Central Springfield Area Redevelopment Committee.
“The members are very active in their community,” Stubbs said. “It’s one thing to have a chamber, it’s another to have a Chamber with active members. That’s what keeps us going, through that involvement.”
Manney said the Chamber continues some of the programs it started with, including monthly networking events and breakfast meetings. Some events, such as an annual Christmas tree lighting, have gone away as the community became more diverse, but bringing the businesses together with the residents remains the top priority.
“We feel very strongly it’s important to have a positive marketing plan for Springfield,” Manney said about the Chamber’s future goals. “That’s a mission that was given to us or we accepted, but we’re trying to be positive in the marketing of Springfield.”