The Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce, formed in 1918, is marking its 100th year as a promoter of economic and community development. It has had different names over the years and has moved a number of times, but it’s been “pushing” issues for a century.
In the years immediately after its formation, the chamber led the successful community effort to have the Lincoln Highway routed through Cedar Rapids. The effort — which involved mobilizing the business community to lobby the state and federal bureaucracies — mirrored the one 80 years later when the chamber led a multiyear effort to get federal funds to extend Highway 100 from Highway 13 to Highway 30.
In the 1970s, the chamber was part of a coalition — with most of the credit going to longtime Mayor Don Canney — to route Interstate 380 through Cedar Rapids, with a number of entrances and exit to lead people downtown and to core neighborhoods.
In response to the farm crisis in the mid-1980s, the chamber formed the Committee of 100, which evolved into Priority One, the chamber’s powerful economic development arm. Its singular focus was to recruit a variety of businesses to diversify the city’s heavily ag-based economy and make it more recession proof.
In 2000, the chamber helped pass a $46 million school bond issue, the state’s largest at the time. And in 2005, it pushed the referendum that changed the city’s form of government from commission to council-mayor.
And the chamber’s push for almost 20 years for a new federal courthouse finally was realized after the 2008 flood, at the time the chamber was working hard to help its members find flood recovery funds.
The business community’s desire for an organization, though, dates to April 2, 1887, when 100 men formed the Social and Commercial Club, also known as the Occidental Club, dedicated to bringing business and industry to the growing city of more than 10,000.
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Three years later, in February 1890, the Young Men’s Commercial Club was organized “to further the interests of Cedar Rapids.” Its 50 or so members set out to advertise Cedar Rapids and to secure as many manufacturing enterprises as they could for the city. Headed by H.V. Ferguson, it also began discussing building a new high school and a new Union Depot for the railroads. Other men in the room are a “Who’s Who” in early Cedar Rapids: Ralph Van Vechten, J.E. Hannegan, L. Benedict, M.J. Gates, George T. Hedges, Walter D. Douglas and A.T. Cooper.
In 1897, A.N. Palmer spearheaded another effort, sending letters to 400 businessmen, inviting them to meet at his Cedar Rapids Business College to organize the Cedar Rapids Commercial Club.
By 1899, the Commercial Club was well-established, with offices in the Granby Building, 230 Second St. SE.
A year-end report revealed the city had added more than a dozen new concerns and that the club had organized a carnival and had promoted the “Parlor City,” as Cedar Rapids was then known, as a desirable location for business and professional meetings, industry shows and conventions.
In 1901, the Occidental club was absorbed into the Commercial Club, with the Commercial Club taking over the lease of the fourth-floor rooms at the Masonic Temple. The greatly expanded space included a cafe for noon lunches and an opportunity for socialization. The organization’s focus shifted from just securing new businesses to also working on civic affairs and hospitality.
One of the club’s key positions was secretary, and one of the most effective secretaries was John Wunderlich, who was hired from the Chicago, Anamosa & Northern Railway in August 1908. He had no experience in commercial club work, and maybe for that reason, he was able to persuade potential members that more could be accomplished by being part of the club than being apart from it.
He was such an asset to the city and the club that when he tendered his resignation in 1917, the board of directors at first refused to accept it.
With Wunderlich’s departure, a new board was elected and with it came plans for a reorganization — this time as a Chamber of Commerce.
By the second meeting of the new cabinet in February 1918, the chamber was up and running. F.C. Fisher became the temporary chairman, with two representatives from each division served in his cabinet. The manufacturers and wholesalers division reorganized under the leadership of Ben Witwer.
Walter L. Cherry, who became president of the new chamber, noted that bettering a community meant “enlarging the physical, business, social and spiritual life of the community.”
A chamber building was built on the northeast corner of First Avenue East and Second Street NE in 1919, and the chamber had grown to 1,000 members by 1924.
That building caught fire early Feb. 22, 1926, with damage topping $213,000. Firefighters thought the blaze could have started in the building’s basement, but no cause was ever determined.
The next day, workers using coal buckets hoisted 5,000 tariff schedules from the charred second floor and began drying them out. Two cabinets of traffic bureau documents fell into the basement and had to be dug out from under debris. Contents of the safe were unloaded, and the Community Chest document s — the forerunner of United Way — were saved. While some files were saved, older records on the third floor were lost.
Everything that could be moved was taken to the social room of the YMCA where furniture was scrubbed and manuscripts sorted. The chamber then moved to a temporary location on the mezzanine of the Montrose Hotel.
In October 1926, the Veterans Memorial Commission accepted plans for the municipal building on May’s Island. It added a four-story edifice to the north side, along the First Avenue Bridge, to house the Chamber of Commerce beginning in September 1928.
By 1955, the chamber had 32 bureaus and committees covering its civic work.
In 1956, Chamber President Morris Sanford decided to gather as much of the organization’s history as he could, given the records lost in the 1926 fire. Information was provided by members who were active at the time: Sutherland Dows, Dr. Frederick G. Murray, John C. Reid, John M. Ely, Haven Simmons, Verne Marshall, H.G. Hedges. George Laird, Stewart Holmes, Howard Cherry and John B. Terry.
Some of the dates might have been off, but they came as close as they could.
Moves & Changes
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In 1967, after almost 40 years at “the bow of the May’s Island battleship,” the 3,000-member chamber took the city’s $100,000 buyout of its lease and moved to Professional Park at 127 Third St. NE. The city remodeled the chamber’s former space into a municipal courtroom.
In 1982, the chamber moved to First Avenue and Fifth Street NE, after spending $500,000 to remodel the former Elks building.
Over the next decade, the chamber began molding itself into a regional entity, fostering development in Eastern Iowa, promoting the area at the state Capitol and hosting international trade. In 1987, it launched Priority One, the economic development arm of the chamber.
Chuck Peters, CEO of SourceMedia Group, The Gazette’s parent company at the time, became the chairman of the chamber in 2010, announcing an aggressive plan to promote the region on a global scale.
On Jan. 1, 2012, the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance was formed, combining the functions of the Cedar Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, Priority One and the Cedar Rapids Downtown District. The alliance moved to the former IMAX Theater space at 501 First St. SE.
Now in its 100th year, the chamber — with a new name — is led by executive director Doug Neumann.
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