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Richmond Chamber of Commerce Declares Bankruptcy

After 85 years, including even riding out the challenging years of the Great Depression, the venerable Richmond Chamber of Commerce is closing down, the latest victim of the current economic downturn.


According to a press release emailed by Chamber staff a few moments ago, the Chamber has filed in United States Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of California in San Francisco for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and will shut its doors forever on April 1. Everything will be auctioned off, from tables and chairs to a rare collection of photos of past Chamber board chairs.


“It was for me the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make,” lamented Michelle Blackwell of EBMUD, the current chair of the Richmond Chamber. “The Chamber operates entirely on dues from members, and those members are dropping like flies as they struggle to simply keep their heads above water.”


Widely known for their sense of humor, both enduring and endearing, chamber board members were a glum lot indeed as they took the final vote to shut the doors forever. Past Board Chair Tom Waller was particularly upset. “What I will miss most are those crab feeds. They were the high point of the year for me. I never dreamed the most recent crab feed would also be the last.”


The only upbeat comment was from Michelle Itagaki of the Richmond Convention and Visitors Bureau, an offshoot of the Chamber. “Thank God we moved out when we did,” she sighed. “They could have dragged us down with them, but now we are safely in our own office, and business is actually picking up.”


According to Vernon Whitmore, a Chamber board member and the resident historian, one of the reasons the Chamber made it through the Great Depression some 70 years ago was the support of industrial giants like Ford Motor Company, Filice and Perelli Canning Company, American Standard and of course, Standard Oil, all of which once maintained flagship industrial facilities in Richmond – not to mention the WW II shipyards that really pulled this City out of the Depression. “Today, however, the economy is much more diversified,” explained Whitmore, “ and most of those industrial giants are just a distant memory.”


The exception, of course, is Chevron. “We thought Chevron would bail us out,” said longtime Chamber booster Josh Genser, “but with Measure T and all that, Chevron is whining just as much as real estate brokers and car dealers.”


In perhaps the only gesture of sympathy from Chevron, Refinery Manager Mike Coyle offered Chamber President Judy Morgan the governmental affairs position long held by Dean O’Hair. “Dean is retiring in a couple of months,” explained Coyle, “and the least we can do is bring Judy aboard to repay her for her courage and leadership in opposing Measure T and supporting business-friendly candidates. Besides, she has a special relationship with Richmond movers and shakers that goes far beyond anything Dean was ever able to cultivate. She’ll be a real asset to our organization.”


Morgan hopes to bring most of her staff with her, avoiding painful layoffs. “Selling Chevron will require no learning curve for them,” she offered. “They have been doing that all along.”


“There was a time when we could’ve depended on the members of the Council of Industries to extend a hand,” mused Bob Dabney, “ but after Measure T passed, both of them are just clinging to their wallets with both hands. This is the thanks we get? If they hadn’t been so cheap during the campaign, Measure T would have gone down in flames.”


Not only hit hard by the downturn, the Chamber is facing crushing competition from a horde of ethnicity and special interest oriented chambers of commerce. “There is only so much money out there for chamber dues,” explained former Chamber Board Chair John Ziesenhenne. “We have to compete with the Black Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Asian Chamber of Commerce. For people who don’t fit any of these, there is an Ethnic Chamber of Commerce. For goodness sake, there’s even a Green Chamber of Commerce. When we are just a traditional plain old vanilla Chamber of Commerce, how can we survive?”


Reaction among Richmond City Council members was swift but mixed. First to react was Nat Bates. “The Chamber supported me politically,” said Bates, “and I brought home the bacon for them. Now that they are in trouble, it’s our job to step up and help them out.”


“Can you imagine a city without a chamber?” Bates continued. “Who would stand up for business? I will agendize a bailout measure at the next City Council meeting. If The City Council or Chevron won’t help them out, we’ll use the money from Chevron’s community fund to do the job. I control that committee, and I’ll just make it happen.”


Mayor McLaughlin was more sanguine, barely able to conceal a smirk while humming Que Sera Sera. “Maybe it’s time for the Chamber to fade into the sunset,” mused the mayor. “They could’ve gone green and ridden the new wave, but they tied themselves to Big Oil, and suffered the consequences.” Not one to hold a grudge, however, McLaughlin offered to present a proclamation for 85 years of service at the next Council meeting. “It is only fitting that Nat Bates joins me in the presentation,” she added. “I’ll have my staff prepare it immediately.”


Viramontes was visibly upset and swore she would not go down without a fight. Launching into a historical analysis of the Richmond Chamber contextualized by a brief digression into the chamber movement as a unique 20th Century American business-labor phenomenon, she concluded with a challenge to chambers everywhere. “If Richmond goes, so goes the country. If there was ever a time for chambers across the nation to come together to save one of their own, it is now!”


Ritterman quite appropriately described the crisis in medical metaphors. “The patient is in cardiac arrest, but it is our duty to revive him at all costs. In the medical vernacular, to be precise, this calls for electrical induction of ventricular fibrillation for resuscitation from postcountershock pulseless and asystolic cardiac arrest.”


“In other words,” said Ritterman, “we will snatch the Chamber from the jaws of death and find the resources to restore it to full health. I will personally meet with the board tomorrow to prescribe a cure.”


Rogers, on the other hand, was concerned with the legal ramifications. After seeking advice from the city attorney, he proposed a creative and innovative public-private partnership that would be placed on the May special election ballot. It would create a new type of chamber of commerce that represents not just business but also consumers. The board would be elected at large under a complex but non-discriminatory formula with the operation funded by a new tax on cell phones, thus eliminating the traditional control of big business. “Everyone has a cell phone,” said Rogers,” or at least ought to have one. There is no reason why a chamber of commerce should be controlled by business. It’s totally undemocratic, and buyers should have just as much power as sellers.”


Last to speak out was Vice Mayor Lopez. “Hispanics are now nearly 30 percent of the Richmond population,” Myrna explained. “I can’t support business as usual, but I can support a City bailout if we just get out ahead of the game and simply rename the Richmond Chamber of Commerce the Richmond Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. I realize some groups might be offended, but I would be willing to entertain the idea of black, Asian and green subcommittees within the organization to make sure no one is left out.”


Despite expressions of concern and offers of remedies from the City Council, the prospects for reviving the Richmond Chamber of Commerce appeared bleak indeed.


Apparently, I am the only person who can actually save the Chamber by advising you that this is …..


April Fool’s Day!


Postscript: Despite a record of poor and intransigent political choices and a challenged sense of humor, the Richmond Chamber of Commerce is actually doing quite well. Check out the website www.rcoc.com for information on upcoming events, including the Green is Gold Business Expo at the Ford Building Craneway Pavilion on May 14, 2009, 4:00 Pm to 7:00 PM and the Home Front Festival on October 2-3, 2009.