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Soundings

Steven Malanga
A Chamber of Commerce
Under its new boss, New York City’s top business group is at last promoting business interests.
Summer 2001

A chamber of commerce typically lobbies local government to slash regulations, publicly defends business interests, and offers help to small firms, right? Not in Gotham, where the New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce under former transit chief Robert Kiley spent much of the last half-decade pursuing activities like building subsidized housing, funding incentive programs for public school teachers and principals, and training welfare recipients for work.

The partnership’s focus on social services left New York’s heavily taxed business community without a public voice. The Giuliani administration complained that it couldn’t even rely on the partnership’s help in fighting for basic business interests like tax cuts. The Business Council of New York State grumbled publicly that the group didn’t help it oppose new health-care entitlements that will cost New York firms dearly. Businesses—especially small ones—have fled the group; the partnership is down from 5,000 small-business members to a paltry 300.

The partnership’s sorry recent history makes it all the more important that business-friendly Kathy Wylde, long associated with the organization, has replaced Kiley as its leader. Wylde (a City Journal publication committee member) wants the group to return to its traditional role of being an active pro-business voice. "Our job is to help position the New York economy to keep it competitive," she says sensibly. "That means addressing things like our airports, development of office space, energy policy. These are the issues that will appeal to business leaders in the city."

Wylde’s first steps have been encouraging. She’s spinning off several of the partnership’s social-service programs, and she’s redefining others. For example, the group’s Housing Partnership, which in recent years had increasingly transformed itself into a typical nonprofit, government-subsidized housing developer, will now be—as it was in the past—a conduit through which private capital can flow into housing markets in the city’s poor and middle-income neighborhoods. Wylde is also using the partnership’s new pro-business approach to boost membership, trying to get small businesses involved again and reaching out to chief executives of investment funds, to money managers, and to venture capitalists—people crucial to the city’s current prosperity but hitherto outside the organization.

Not a moment too soon: with Mayor Giuliani’s successor likely to be a liberal Democrat, the business community will need a strong advocate for fiscal restraint and pro-growth strategies in the next four years.

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