By Melissa Weinman and Joe Earle

At a recent luncheon, members of the chambers of commerce of Sandy Springs and Dunwoody met at an office building in Brookhaven to hear a presentation from MARTA’s general manager.

That mix of local and regional forces illustrates the current state of business groups in the Perimeter area, who are loyal to their individual cities but also stress the importance of working together to promote their bustling corner of metro Atlanta.

Three cities with a stake in the Perimeter – Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs – each have their own chamber of commerce. Nearby Chamblee is in the process of forming its own chamber of commerce, too. On top of that, there’s also a group called the Perimeter Business Alliance.

“You have four different business groups representing one fairly small geographic area,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul. “I don’t think that helps the business community having that diverse, confusing, mishmash of business organizations in that area.”

Paul, the former chairman of the Sandy Springs/Perimeter Chamber of Commerce, said he would like to see the different groups come together to form one chamber of commerce for the Perimeter area. Within that larger organization, he envisions each city maintaining its own business association, he said.

“On a lot of issues, businesses of those three communities should be speaking with one voice, and they’re missing an opportunity when they don’t,” Paul said.

Todd Lantier, chairman and founding director of the Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce, said he too would like for the chambers in the Perimeter area to collaborate. He said he has had conversations with the leaders of other Perimeter chambers about forming an alliance.

“There’s so much going on here that my vision is that we come together not losing our own individuality, maintaining our Brookhaven Chamber of Commerce for local reasons, but coming together to promote the region as a more viable option than, say Downtown or Buckhead,” Lantier said.

Lantier said the chambers need to work together to promote the Perimeter area as a whole, rather than each city’s piece of it.

“We want them to succeed just as much as anyone else does, because if they’re successful, we’ll be successful,” Lantier said of the other cities.

The Sandy Springs and Dunwoody chambers are trying joint promotions of events, such as holding joint luncheons. “It was kind of like, ‘Let’s date before we get married,’” Sandy Springs Perimeter Chamber President Tom Mahaffey said. “It’s worked out pretty well.”

But one recent attempt to combine efforts fizzled. The third annual joint Perimeter Business Expo, originally scheduled for June 5, was cancelled due to lack of participation, Mahaffey said.

Mahaffey said exhibitors had complained about turnout for past expos. This year, he said, only 24 exhibitors signed up in advance, when Mahaffey thought he needed 45 to 50. “I didn’t feel good about it,” he said.

Mahaffey said he thought the lack of participation reflected the type of businesses operating in the Perimeter area, especially in Sandy Springs. Many are large corporations, not the small businesses whose owners are interested in an event like the expo.

In the future, he said, he was thinking of organizing a show dealing with a segment of the corporate market, such as health care. “The small business expo – I just don’t think this is the community,” he said.

Bob Dallas, a board member of the Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce, said he doesn’t think it’s redundant for each city to have its own chamber.

Dallas said larger chamber organizations, like the Georgia Chamber of Commerce or Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, can do things like reach out to large corporations overseas, where as city chambers can focus their efforts on local business communities.

“They represent different skill sets,” Dallas said.

Dallas said he thinks the Dunwoody Chamber of Commerce is important to keep the city balanced by providing representation to the business community, which helps keeps taxes low for residents. The chamber can speak out on behalf of businesses when the city council considers things like changes to the sign ordinance or permitting procedures that could affect businesses in the city.

He said as the different chamber groups in the Perimeter area mature, it makes sense for them to collaborate. He would like to see them work more with the DeKalb County Chamber of Commerce as well.

“A lot of it has to do with where you are in your life cycle as an organization,” Dallas said. “These natural relationships will come to fruition, especially on our DeKalb County side.”

Van Pappas, president and chairman of the board of the Chamblee Chamber of Commerce, said after years of operating as a business association, his organization felt it was time to develop into a chamber of commerce to provide more services and resources for Chamblee businesses.

Pappas said he would be very interested in working with other chamber organizations around north DeKalb.

But the Chamblee Chamber will likely spend its first year focusing on local business relations and developing a strong relationship with Chamblee’s city government.

“We’re a brand new organization,” Pappas said. “The first year is crucial.”

Paul said while many in the various chamber organizations are interested in joining forces, there has never been a consensus.

“I think community pride plays a part in it. Nobody wants to lose their identity,” Paul said. “The only thing missing is the will to do it, and I’m hoping that will shows up sooner rather than later. I think all three communities would benefit. This is something I care deeply about and I think is vital to the long-term health of all three communities.”