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Chambers Clash Over Chesterfield

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James W. Dunn, president and chief executive of the Richmond chamber, says Habeck's chamber has increasingly taken isolationist positions, refusing to support regional projects such as the Performing Arts Center and the Greater Richmond Transit Co.'s county van service.

"We want to be able to bring other people [and businesses] to bring jobs to the region," Dunn says. "You have others saying let's close the borders off."

With more than 530 members, the six-year-old Chesterfield chamber has become a powerful voice in county politics. Its membership has grown largely because businesses wanted a strong voice in the community, says Habeck, something he says his citified cousin cannot provide.

Members agree. "It is the finest thing that has happened to the business community in Chesterfield County — ever," says Bob Schrum, president and CEO of Flagstop, a car-washing outfit with six locations in the metro area.

Schrum says Habeck, the founding member of the county chamber, began vigorously advocating for the business community upon its inception in 1999, pushing for friendlier zoning laws and lower business taxes. "Roger came in with the biggest stick," Schrum says — and he's not intimidated. "Roger would urinate in the boot of every county official, while they were still in the boot."

As membership grew so did the chamber's influence.

Shortly after the county chamber emerged with its aggressive approach, the Richmond chamber made changes of its own in 2001. The Richmond chamber, which has four business councils under its umbrella, altered its bylaws. It required members of its Chesterfield Business Council to join the Richmond chamber, where membership fees start at $375.

That jump-started the council's decline, says Joan Girone, a local commercial real-estate agent who chairs the Chesterfield Business Council's long-range planning committee. The business council lost its voice. For example, Girone says, for more than two years the group has attempted to obtain a list of its business council members from the Richmond chamber — to no avail.

"We just became a committee of the Greater Richmond Chamber," she says. "We lost our autonomy. We were taken over."

Dunn says that isn't so. Changing the bylaws was a matter of legal housekeeping, an attempt to ensure members of the business council first join the larger chamber. The business council is free to represent the community as it sees fit, he says.

"The chamber does not tell the Chesterfield Business Council or any other business council what they can or cannot do," Dunn says.

As for the membership directory, Dunn says it lists contact information for all its members online. Chesterfield Business Council doesn't have its own members per se, but 492 companies that are members of the Richmond chamber participate in the council.

Dunn says he is disappointed that the county chamber has opposed regional efforts, and recently sent Ed Barber, chairman of the county's board of directors, a letter expressing his frustration.

Not only is Chesterfield considering pulling its financial support for the Greater Richmond Partnership to the tune of $390,000, it's questioning why $620,000 of the Partnership's budget is going to the Richmond chamber for workforce development programs and other business retention efforts.

Dunn says recent sparring with Chesterfield reflects a broader isolationist mentality emanating from the board of supervisors. "At some point, the county has to decide what it wants to be," Dunn says.

Habeck, who is stepping down in June as executive director, says the Chesterfield chamber isn't anti-regional and has never taken a position against public transportation or the Performing Arts Center. He says the chamber was against raising hotel taxes to pay for the center because it unfairly taxed hoteliers.

"The arts center brought it on themselves," Habeck says. "They just tried to shove it down Chesterfield's throat." — Scott Bass



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