The Interview: Howard Miller

The Center Club is known as one of Baltimore's most exclusive private clubs, where executives, lawyers, doctors and other civic leaders socialize and conduct business.

But in 1962, when the club was founded, it had a simpler goal in mind: to provide an inclusive environment for the city's business professionals regardless of their race or religion. Some of the club's earliest members included prominent black leaders, such as Martin D. Jenkins, president of then-Morgan State College, and Henry G. Parks Jr., founder of Parks Sausage Co.

Over its lifetime, the club has moved twice from its original location at One Charles Center, and three years ago it spent $2.7 million to renovate its current space at 100 Light St.

During the recession, the Center Club's membership dwindled to a low of 1,554, down from a peak of 2,200 in 1999-2000. More recently, though, membership has picked up, with the total now at 1,921.

To mark its 50th anniversary this year, the club seeks to reach 2,012 members, according to Howard Miller, president of the Center Club and a partner at law firm Saul Ewing. Miller joined the club in 1966 and still carries his original membership card.

The Baltimore Sun recently spoke with Miller about the club's history, its membership drive and its efforts to stay relevant.

Some people may be unfamiliar with the Center Club's founding. How did it get started?

It was an outgrowth of the 1950s redevelopment of Charles Center. As business leaders were having secret meetings with the mayor, they found that most of the places in town where they could have the meetings had discriminatory policies.

So … half a dozen of the … business leaders got together and decided when the first new building went up, which became One Charles Center, that they needed for the betterment of the city a private club for business people, male and female, that did not discriminate.

The existing private clubs in town in one way or another had discriminatory policies. That is why we view ourselves today as a civic institution, and we're still fulfilling that obligation today.

How have been able to increase the club's membership in recent years?

When you have our type of organization, with almost 2,000 members, every year, because of death, people moving out of state and retirement, we lose 5 to 6 percent of members. … While we've been able to grow our membership by almost 400 in the last three years, it means we've taken in 700 new members. In the face of the economic slowdown, we know we're doing something right.

We've been able to grow our membership because we've been true to our core values. The Center Club was established in 1962 to give the leadership of Baltimore an opportunity to come together and discuss business and create a place where they could enjoy each other's company. Our slogan today is "Where commerce and culture meet."

One of the other reasons why we've been able to build our membership is we're not just a lunch and dinner club. We're a civic institution.

We have within the Center Club six "clubs," such as two Spanish-speaking clubs and a history club.

We are constantly increasing the services and activities we could provide our members.

In the age of Twitter, meet-ups and other social networking events, how does the club stay relevant?

Ten years ago, we did very little programming. We now do 200 events a year.

We stay relevant by continuing to bring in members. We continue to encourage people to create business relationships within the club.

We're also staying relevant because we have brought in … charitable organizations [as members]. Today, we have a lot of [nonprofits that] bring in prospective donors to talk about charitable giving.

In the old days, when there were a lot of big businesses in town, all the captains of industry belonged to the Center Club. Today … the bulk of new members are entrepreneurs — people who own their own businesses. They still see the wisdom of joining the club.

You always hear stories of big deals coming together at the Center Club. Is that true?

It's my understanding that part of the final workout of the Constellation and Exelon deal was done at the Center Club. [The proposed merger between Baltimore's Constellation Energy Group and Chicago's Exelon Corp. is pending. The deal recently received approval from the Maryland Public Service Commission.]

The answer is yes. There are absolutely deals still being done at the Center Club.

For sure, a lot of charity funds are raised at the Center Club because you see development officers from major charities there. I don't have any doubt that good deals are being done there over lunch and dinner.