San Antonio, long a city of Balkanized chambers of commerce, is staying that way, even as many next-generation business owners choose not to sign up for membership, saying the time and cost is not worth the networking benefits. Others say the chambers’ primary mission should be economic development and the maze of local chambers dilutes their impact.
Merger talks between the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce have hit a dead end, according to an article published Thursday in the San Antonio Business Journal. Both organizations saw their CEOs exit late last year. Business and civic leaders eager to see some consolidation were hoping for a single new CEO to lead a merger.
The San Antonio Chamber’s current chair, Katie Harvey, CEO of KGBTexas Communications, and the North Chamber’s acting CEO, Duane Wilson, both told the Business Journal’s Scott Bailey that merger talks have ended.
The push to merge came from the San Antonio Chamber, but the proposed consolidation was rejected by the North Chamber. That leaves both organizations in the hunt for new leadership and, more importantly, exploring what role chambers have to play in a 21st-century economy redefined by hybrid workforces, disruptive technologies and the declining relevance of chambers here and elsewhere.
One question even some longtime chamber members are privately asking is this: Do chambers of commerce matter much anymore?
There are at least 16 chambers of commerce in Bexar County. Over the years, I’ve listened to many of the various chambers’ leaders describe the unique business cultures they serve and the importance of not being swallowed up by one of the three big chambers (The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber being the third one). Basically, every side of town, every ethnic, racial and social entity seems to have a chamber representing distinct interests.
That doesn’t exactly allow San Antonio to speak with one voice on the economic development front or while attempting to influence local government. Several years ago, it was an emerging Tech Bloc, a sort of anti-chamber of commerce, that successfully pressured City Hall to bring rideshare and scooter companies to San Antonio, while the big “don’t rock the boat” chambers cautiously watched from the sidelines. Then the pandemic led to the hollowing out of the central business district and seemed to sap momentum from Tech Bloc. The nonprofit’s website’s last posting was in 2022, although it continues to send out a weekly newsletter.
The larger issue here is measuring the success of the city in growing its economy, jobs base, company recruitment and workforce strength. Greater:SATX is tasked with leading the region’s economic development efforts, but it’s hard to argue that having so many competing business organizations furthers its mission.
It’s been a long time since San Antonio scored big on the economic development front. Even with a new name and a new, private sector-driven strategic plan developed led by Greater:SATX CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, San Antonio has struggled to successfully position itself as a destination city for new and established companies.
A resurgent Tesla announced last week that it will build a new gigafactory in the northern Mexican state of Nuevo León and a lithium refinery in Corpus Christi to accelerate next-generation battery production, while expanding its Austin manufacturing facility. The company’s growing footprint in Texas and, now, Mexico prompts the question of what San Antonio is doing to expand vehicle manufacturing and supply chain companies here. Tesla is one obvious target, but Toyota is still the No. 1 vehicle manufacturer. Should the city present Toyota with an incentive package that makes EV production here irresistible?
If anything is happening on that front, it isn’t something being promoted publicly by any of the chambers.
I am ignoring the Delorean Motor Co. and the February 2022 announcement by Greater:SATX that the newly formed entity with its back-to-the-future name would establish its corporate headquarters here. I questioned the deal back then, and I continue to doubt it now.
I am not alone. An article published last week in Motor Authority reported that Delorean is halving planned production of its Alpha5 electric vehicle to a mere 4,000 units over the next five years. Buyers eager to get their hands on a gull-winged sedan will have to hang on to their nonfungible tokens purchased as down payments. The company has yet to identify a manufacturing site or partner.
Some might think I am connecting dots that do not connect. But I’d argue that having enough competing chambers to launch a board game is actually bad for business development. Wouldn’t the city project a stronger, more singular profile with a single leading business and economic development entity?
Greater:SATX has tried hard to be that entity, but it’s only one of many voices clamoring to speak for San Antonio or for segments of the business community. The inability of the city’s two biggest chambers to find common ground, or to hit the refresh button on redefining their mission and relevance, tells me San Antonio is still struggling to speak with one clear voice.
The North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and Greater:SATX are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.