An upstart Chamber of Commerce in East Baton Rouge Parish wants to serve almost exclusively the small business community in Baton Rouge, an area its members say the Baton Rouge Area Chamber has neglected in recent years.
“I think the needs are so great here in Baton Rouge, for someone to stand up for small businesses,” Bob Breaux, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish, told a room of about 75 fellow members and business owners who gathered for the group’s first meeting Tuesday.
Most were there to learn more about the chamber’s mission and values. The group has about 70 members. Annual membership dues are $150 a year, and the business’s owners must live in Baton Rouge.
By that requirement, a publicly traded company such as The Shaw Group could not gain membership.
“We need someone to stand up for Main Street businesses,” Breaux said, referring to numerous small mom-and-pop businesses based in Baton Rouge and surrounding areas such as Central.
The formation of the new chamber is mostly a response to what its organizers say is their dissatisfaction with BRAC, a regional chamber organization Breaux and others criticize as being too focused on the needs and public policy directions of big business while the voice of small business operations have gone unnoticed.
“We are not about going out and getting big jobs and doing ribbon cuttings for big businesses,” Breaux said. “We want to help small businesses grow. We want to help them get off the ground and be successful.”
Adam Knapp, president and CEO of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said claims that BRAC ignores the needs of small businesses are unfounded. He pointed to BRAC’s Small Business Council, which sets a “small business agenda” for the organization.
“We have created a series of events such as our education events tailored to small-business owners,” Knapp said Thursday. “We have taken the lead on a number of pieces of legislation that improve the business climate for small businesses.”
Serving the needs of small businesses is only a part of the underlying philosophy of the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge Parish. The group tends to lean conservative, in both its members and viewpoints, taking a stance in favor of “limited government” and requiring its members to support “family values.”
“I don’t think small business is being represented by our current chamber,” said Cecil Cavanaugh, a member of the Chamber of EBR’s executive committee and a local CPA. “I think it represents big business.”
“I think it has sold out to the progressive Democrat Socialist that we have running the place,” he added. “We need a voice that can be heard not only in the Council, but in the Legislature.”
Asked later, if he was describing Knapp, BRAC’s top leader, Cavanaugh sidestepped the question.
“Well, I mean the only thing that I see or read is Adam Knapp. And it appears that he is too liberal for me, and does not represent the small businessman in Baton Rouge,” said Cavanaugh, 66, a cofounder and director of the Tea Party of Louisiana
Cavanaugh said he opposed BRAC’s endorsement of a recent property tax referendum to fund the Capital Area Transit System.
“I don’t they have ever met a tax they didn’t like,” Cavanaugh said.
Knapp said BRAC’s policy positions are carefully arrived at after deliberation by many stakeholders in BRAC and in the larger Baton Rouge community.
“If leaders of the CCEBRP are concerned about our small-business efforts, that’s one thing and I am happy to discuss that at any time,” Knapp responded. “If they are upset about positions that we have recently taken on controversial issues, then that’s another thing entirely. We rarely, if ever, take a position and not have one group or another disappointed. It is the nature of how these things work. We do, however, have a researched, fact-based rationale for our decision making through the guidance of business leaders on our issue councils, and are more than willing to sit down and discuss how we come to the conclusions that we do.”
The Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge says it has no intention of putting an end to BRAC, but wants to give local business operators another option.
“We’re not trying to put anybody out of business,” Breaux said. “We just want to give the local businesses a voice.”
Mike Walker, who serves as the Metro Council’s chairman and is running against incumbent Mayor-President Kip Holden to become Baton Rouge’s next mayor, told the group he understands their concerns.
“Too many small businesses are being ignored,” he said.