It’s 1890 in Columbus, Indiana, and there were still some rock slab and board sidewalks downtown, but mules were starting to pull street cars up and down Washington Street. The town’s population had topped 6,700 and folks were beginning to envision better things.
Hence, in 1890, a Businessmen’s Committee was formed which met informally and occasionally, but members shared concerns over lack of jobs in the city, the need for merchants to improve their offerings and a desire to make Columbus more attractive for industry and the people. In 1903 a President was chosen and Board of Directors was elected but no office was established. In 1908 the group took decisive action. The Columbus Commercial Club, with 100 members, was formed with a membership fee of $10. An office was set up on the second floor of the Hilger Building at the southwest corner of Fourth & Washington Streets. With the rapid growth of the Club, offices were moved in 1913 to the Ogden Building at 316 Fourth Street, where a large meeting room was available. Coinciding with this move, The Commercial Club affiliated with the National Chamber of Commerce becoming No. 283.
On October 27, 1915, The Columbus Chamber recorded its papers with the Indiana Secretary of State and hired its first full-time Executive Secretary, John E. Northway. By now, the organization was being referred to as the Chamber of Commerce instead of The Commercial Club. In 1917 the Chamber moved its offices and again in 1927 the Chamber offices were moved to the City Hall Building where they remained for 38 years.
In 1929, the Columbus Chamber scored a first – at least in Indiana. Then Chamber President, G. L. Reeves made a radio address over Indianapolis Station WFBM advertising the City of Columbus on behalf of the Chamber. He told the radio audience, “We are not attempting to build the largest city at Columbus, but simply the best.” That same year the Chamber expressed concern over housing. It was startled to find that some newcomers coming to Columbus to work had to live in tents. The Chamber announced: “We need many apartments and houses renting at $15 to $25 a month.” Arvin Industries had started moving to Columbus and with that move and expansion of Cummins, Columbus was never again exactly a “Little Town.”
Several men served as Chamber Presidents during the times of the “Roaring Twenties”, the Depression of the ‘30’s and World War II. In 1942, with the start of World War II and the construction of nearby Camp Atterbury, Chamber activities boomed! Extra help was hired and the Chamber set up a housing office to accommodate construction workers and families of soldiers who were pouring into Columbus. Also at that time, USO Headquarters were part of the Chamber office at its City Hall location. In 1943 Chamber President Earl B. Pulse looked ahead to the eventual end of WW II and formed several committees for long-range objectives for the city of Columbus. Close to 200 individuals worked on that two-year project. In December, 1945, the group concluded a 15-point program which provided direction for Columbus, even to the present. The 15-points included:
Establishment of a Planning Commission and a master plan for Columbus by an Architect-Engineer, with a Zoning Ordinance and Building Code.
Prompt annexation of East Columbus.An outdoor swimming pool (which became Donner
A new gymnasium or fieldhouse, a civic
A new City Hall and combined civic or recreation center, or combined new hotel and civic center, and a new center for the Foundation for Youth.
A new city water supply and construction of a sewage disposal plant.Establishment of a building fund tax to improve school facilities with more business education in the schools and a program for returning veterans.
Use of Atterbury airfield as a joint Municipal Airport, or if it (now Columbus Municipal Airport) was not available to use the Walesboro field as a city airport.
Construction by the State Highway Department of a new bridge over White River at the western edge of Columbus, on Road 46, and a new bridge over Hawcreek on East Twenty-fifth Street.
Within fifteen years most of the objectives had been reached, thanks to all the Chamber Presidents and hundreds of others who helped.
There was no slowing down – there was the Greater Columbus Action Committee, the Environmental Programs, expansion of IUPUI center, opening of the Visitors Center in the Storey House, the Mill Race Park project and Riverfront Task Force, and Town Meetings looking to Columbus’ future needs.
In the 1980’s, the community was faced with dramatic changes brought about by national industrial restructuring and downsizing. Columbus’ largest employers came through this transition with smaller workforces and jobs at Arvin and Cummins were no longer an automatic rite of passage for young people. In response, the Chamber and other community organizations forged partnerships to diversify the city’s economic base by bringing new companies to the community and encouraging existing businesses to perform. Through the Columbus Economic Development Board, which operates under the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, a global effort to bring new businesses to town was mounted. It was enormously successful. From 1976 to 1999, thirty-seven new companies were recruited through the efforts of the EDB, accounting for 3,371 jobs and an investment of $320 million. Expansion of 181 local businesses contributed to 5,148 new jobs and brought more than $1.5 billion in investments to the community.
With education playing a major role in the economic development efforts, the Chamber stepped forward as a catalyst in bringing about improvements in existing educational structure and creating new educational environments. As part of the Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the Community Education Coalition was formed creating a partnership of education, business and community stakeholders focused on aligning and integrating the community learning systems, economic development and quality of life in the Columbus area. Dedicated in 2005, the Columbus Learning Center “joins” Indiana University Purdue University Columbus, Ivy Tech Community College, and Purdue College of Technology Columbus/SEI by providing classrooms, laboratories and support services for over 4,500 of their college students. The Center for Teaching and Learning and the Library serve the three post-secondary institutions, as well as BCSC, Flat Rock-Hawcreek School Corporation and regional school corporations.
The Chamber continues in the role of both an activist organization and a partner with scores of others as we strive to
foster an innovative business environment and a world-class community.
Source: Compiled by Robert Marshall in 1978 and updated by Harry McCawley in 1999.