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A Chamber of Commerce is a professional affiliation of local businesses, often associated with other civic organizations such as the Visitors and Tourism Bureau. Membership is generally voluntary, although most local businesses do find strength in numbers. The organization does not have a watchdog function over its membership, however, and is not associated with the Better Business Bureau. There are local, state, and national Chambers of Commerce, with members ranging from small "mom and pop" stores to major corporations.
The main function of a Chamber of Commerce is to promote interest in local business possibilities. If a major automotive manufacturing plant was considering building a new plant in Huntsville, Alabama, for example, the Huntsville Chamber of Commerce would most likely arrange a meeting with the corporate representatives. This meeting would promote the number of products and services available within Huntsville, including engineering firms, construction companies, automotive part suppliers and transportation lines. A persuasive representative can attract a number of outside investors to the area.
A Chamber of Commerce also works within the community as a leader of civic projects. Sponsorship of local beautification programs is often provided by the local organization as a means to improve the city's appeal. The local government often turns to the group first when seeking the opinion of the business community. Membership in a Chamber of Commerce is generally viewed as a powerful endorsement by prominent local business leaders.
The first Chamber of Commerce was most likely started during the late Middle Ages, as various guilds sought protection and promotion through unity. One group in Scotland has been in continuous service since the 1780s. These organizations have no legal mandate or governmental sponsorship. There is some interconnectivity between local, state and national Chambers of Commerce, although each local chapter remains relatively autonomous.