The headline on the front page of the April 3, 1914 edition of The Alexandria Daily Town Talk read, “Alexandria’s Awakening: Great Step in Organization of Chamber of Commerce.” The Town Talk reported, “Alexandria has awakened—by this is not meant that Alexandria has been asleep or dreaming for the past 100 years; on the contrary Alexandria has done much for her state and for herself. Once a thriving little city of antebellum days, afterwards reduced to practically ashes and hardships, a mere village, growing by degrees to be dignified by the name of ‘town’ and now honored by the name of ‘city’, all this without practically noise of boom whatever.”
The 250 business and professional men who met in the Italian Room of the Hotel Bentley on March 30, 1914 to form the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce realized it was time to organize for the purpose of facilitating growth and prosperity for Central Louisiana. At this juncture, they knew they had something to sell—a great little city and a region with a strong, emerging business, agricultural and timber industry base. The Alexandria Business Men’s League, the Progressive League and the Merchant’s Association were the foundations for the Chamber of Commerce. Their members came together to make it happen. Upon its formation, a room was established for the Chamber operation in Alexandria City Hall.
“Wherein then comes the change,” wrote the unnamed Town Talk reporter. “It has come upon our people in the way they see things, handle things and do things. Concentration, cooperation, good fellowship, are all combining in the public work of our people, and the full realization of the good that can be accomplished by such united action is in the hearts and minds of all.”
The first Board of Directors of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce was elected on April 6, 1914. The board consisted of W. D. Haas, physician and banker; B. F. Thompson, wholesale, Geo. M. Hardy, wholesale; L. Rubenstein, retail; George Bauer, retail; Sherman Cook, real estate; William Polk, real estate; J. D. Cleary, labor; R.S. Thornton, lawyer; R. O. Simmons, doctor; L. Rothstein, minister; Harry Burrows, farmer; J.E. Scott, traveling man; S. W. Day, live stock; Donald Despain, colonization; W.W. Whittington, Jr., lumberman; J. E. Thorsell, manufacturer; R. C. Jarreau, newspaper; and F. P. Bolton, J.E. Bell, A. Wettermark, C. M. Waters and T. L. Barnes, at large. Shortly after, W.D. Haas, M.D. was elected as the first President of the Board (today, the position is Chairman). This determined group of business and professional leaders continued to meet over the next days and weeks to build the organization. They set a goal of attracting 1,000 members. As a tribute to the founders, that goal was finally accomplished in November of 2013.
On April 9th of 1914, the Chamber Board issued a request for citizens to submit promotional slogans for their consideration. An announcement in the newspaper stated that the winner of the slogan contest would win a ten dollar prize. Coincidentally, that is the same amount of the cost of a Chamber membership as determined by the founding board of directors. In late April, the Chamber Board announced that it had chosen the slogan, “Unity, Opportunity, Alexandria”. The winning slogan was penned by Mrs. George Bauer, who attended a Chamber meeting to thank the board for the honor and for the ten dollar prize.
The next step for the founders was a membership drive, set for May 6, 1914. An advertisement in The Town Talk on April 28th declared that the next Wednesday would be Alexandria Boosters Day. The ad stated, “Business is the game that a man plays, who has something he wants to sell to someone else. The fact that he has something to sell does not mean that he is going to sell it. He must let others know he has it, he must advertise it all the time. Not now and then, but all the time…A city is the same as a business. It has something to sell. Not merchandise, but opportunities and advantages for Men, Money and Factories. The Chamber of Commerce is a city’s business office, where the work of selling opportunities and advantages is carried on. A business cannot survive without its sales force. Neither can a city…Alexandria has the best brand of opportunities and advantages in the South. Join the Chamber of Commerce next Wednesday, May 6, 1914 and help your city come into its own.”
At 9:00am on May 6th, a Chamber booster blew a wild cat whistle at the local power plant to kick off the membership campaign. After the first whistle, others were blown in designated areas of the city. Then, Chamber boosters gathered at the chamber office at Alexandria City Hall where they gathered membership cards and banners and put on promotional buttons. The bright red and white buttons read, “I’m An Alexandria Booster, Ask Why.” The Chamber boosters proceeded to the street to fall in behind the brass band of the Snyder A. Murray Players. The band led the enthusiastic boosters through Second and Third Streets as shop keepers and businessmen gathered to enjoy the parade. After the parade, the Chamber boosters fanned out to solicit members. The boosters used the rehearsed pitch, “We are out getting new members for the Chamber of Commerce, so knowing your progressiveness in all matters, we could not pass you up.”
The Chamber Board set a goal of raising $10,000 through new memberships to be used to promote the advantages of the city to the rest of the world. “The work of securing factories and new industries and getting more people to come to Alexandria should devolve upon every citizen, therefore the Chamber of Commerce is made up of people from all walks of life, and we expect everybody to come in and take at least one membership, if not more,” said a booster. The names of the new Chamber members were published in the newspaper. “Many New Members Were Added,” stated the headline in The Town Talk. “Starting off with blowing of whistles and a parade at 9 o’clock, the committees did splendid work, covering the city thoroughly.”
Over the past 100 years, the Chamber has occupied a position of economic, social and political leadership throughout the multi-parish region. Much has been accomplished by the Chamber and its volunteer leaders and staff, but the need for the Chamber’s efforts is unending. A special publication, titled “50 Years of Progress”—marking the 50th Anniversary of the Chamber in 1964—stated, “A half century of fruitful work, viewed day by day, means little to an organization whose work is never done. Unless this organization stops occasionally to see from whence it came and where it is headed, even its members forget its good work, its deeds, its contributions and its accomplishments.”
It must be remembered that the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce does not claim to have accomplished its body of work alone. The Chamber points to a record of cooperation with elected officials and other organizations and individuals. At times, the Chamber was the prime developer of key initiatives over the past century. But oftentimes, others were the prime movers of programs in which Chamber officials felt were worthy objectives for the Chamber to pursue. “The Chamber has felt its way with an unbelievable amount of success in many areas,” according to the 50th Anniversary booklet. “An example of this was the organization of the Pineville Chamber of Commerce in 1951. When it was realized five years later that the twin cities needed a harder hitting team, the Chambers of Commerce of Alexandria and Pineville merged.” The organization operated as the Greater Alexandria-Pineville Area Chamber of Commerce until 1986, when the name was changed to the Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce to match the regional approach of economic development initiatives.
Through the years, the Chamber has taken the initiative to broaden the local industrial and commercial base; aggressively recruited outside businesses while fostering growth and expansion of existing ones; financed advanced community capital planning, zoning and land use projects and worked to further develop the future workforce. It has changed its inner workings to meet new challenges, even as is being done today. The projects change, but the goals do not.
A good test of how much the Chamber has meant to Alexandria/Pineville and Central Louisiana is to look at the accomplishments and think of where the cities and the region would be without them. These accomplishments were realized with human and financial resources over and above those in the commerce of the cities. These accomplishments represent commitments by the members of the Chamber above and beyond their contributions to their businesses and to the community.
The Central Louisiana Chamber of Commerce will celebrate its 100th Anniversary at a celebration on March 27th. The event will begin with an Open House at the Chamber from 4:00pm to 6:00pm, during which visitors can view a video and look through scrapbooks containing thousands of historical photos. At 6:00pm, a marching band will lead those gathered from the Chamber to the steps of the Hotel Bentley to unveil a new historic marker. A reception will follow at the Alexandria Museum of Art. The Chamber is publishing a commemorative 100th Anniversary book, written by Father Chad Partain. These plans are the culmination of a year of work by the Chamber 100th Anniversary Committee, chaired by Reba Harrington, a former Chamber Board Chairperson. The Chamber Board of Directors and staff deeply appreciate her leadership and the work of the committee.