Make us your home page

Burdened by unexpected debt, Davis Islands Chamber of Commerce to dissolve

Bill Sharpe, who committed suicide last year, left behind debt from the Tampa Bay Seafood Festival that is forcing the Davis Islands Chamber of Commerce, a sponsor, to dissolve.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times (2011)

Bill Sharpe, who committed suicide last year, left behind debt from the Tampa Bay Seafood Festival that is forcing the Davis Islands Chamber of Commerce, a sponsor, to dissolve.

TAMPA — When he committed suicide last year, Tampa publisher and homeless advocate Bill Sharpe left behind a financial mess that is now forcing the Davis Islands Chamber of Commerce out of business.

"This is an unfortunate turn of events, but the only option we have," chamber past president Ken Elmore wrote in a recent letter announcing the decision to dissolve.

The problems go back to the Tampa Bay Seafood Festival, which Sharpe organized at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park in March 2012.

An active member of the Davis Islands chamber, Sharpe turned to the organization as a potential sponsor.

With a 501(c)3 charity behind the event, Sharpe told board members, contributions would be tax-deductible, and it would be easier to get a city license to sell beer and wine at the festival.

But the chamber's board didn't realize its name would be used to sign off on insurance paperwork, park permits and security contracts.

Sharpe, 59, published the South Tampa Community News and the Tampa Epoch, a monthly newspaper about issues related to the homeless. Hawking the Epoch has been one way homeless men and women have gotten around Tampa's ban on asking passing motorists for money. (The ban exempts roadside newspaper sales.)

Meanwhile, the Community News had struggled during the recession, and Sharpe put his savings into launching the Epoch. Making payroll became difficult, and he moved into his business after losing his Bayshore Boulevard condominium to foreclosure in 2011. He killed himself on April 2, 2012, in his office.

With Sharpe gone, the city of Tampa and Coast-to-Coast Insurance Co. turned to the chamber to pay bills owed from the festival.

"It was a big surprise to everybody," chamber board member Jim Frijouf said.

"The chamber trusted that Bill Sharpe had the financial resources to carry out his fundraising festivals," Elmore said Thursday in an email to the Times. "Had the chamber known that was not the case and that our small volunteer group would be left holding the bag, we would have never endorsed any of his projects."

The chamber has paid an insurance premium of $3,400, but it cannot pay the $14,000 that it owes the city for the park's rental, plus park staffing, police, the fire marshal and paramedics.

As a result, the chamber will dissolve on May 31.

"It's a bad situation that we don't like, but that's where we are," Frijouf said.

As of late last month, the chamber had less than $900 in the bank and few, if any, choices about how to proceed.

"We currently have no paid members and no one interested in becoming an officer due to the current state of affairs," Elmore said in his letter to the city.

Founded in 2000, the chamber has typically had 30 to 50 members a year, with a core group of about five that meet monthly. Over the years, it supported various causes to improve Davis Islands, including the long-running effort to repair and reopen Roy Jenkins Pool. The reason board members agreed to sponsor the seafood festival was that the proceeds were earmarked for aquatics programs at city parks, which Elmore said "the chamber believes to be a wonderful cause."

But the city never got any money for swimming pools from the festival.

Moreover, Tampa parks and recreation director Greg Bayor doubts that the city could ever collect from the chamber.

"I don't see any recourse," he said. "There's no funds even to go after. There's no collateral anywhere."

Elmore said his group's experience should be a reminder to all nonprofit organizations.

"If marketers and promoters come calling, check them out extensively and ask is it worth losing your organization over," he said in his email to the Times. "In the end, the ones suffering are the small mom-and-pop businesses on the island and a small chamber that wanted to do good for the community."

Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Burdened by unexpected debt, Davis Islands Chamber of Commerce to dissolve 05/09/13 [Last modified: Friday, May 10, 2013 12:06am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa International named among least expensive airports


    TAMPA — Florida airports apparently have a knack for getting it done cheaply.

    According to RewardExpert, Tampa International Airport is the fifth least expensive domestic airport. 
[CHARLIE KAIJO   |   Times
 file photo]

  2. Tampa-based vXchnge secures $200M loan to expand operations


    TAMPA — Tampa-based vXchnge, which operates data centers in 14 metro areas, has secured a loan for roughly $200 million for "major expansions and enhancements."

    Tampa-based vXchnge, a data center provider, secured a $200 million loan. Pictured is CEO Keith Olsen. | [Courtesy of vXchnge]
  3. No toll lanes north of downtown Tampa in three of four interstate proposals


    TAMPA — Express lanes may not be coming to downtown Tampa after all. Or at least not to the stretch of Interstate 275 that goes north through Bearss Avenue.

    Seminole Heights resident Kimberly Overman discusses the new interstate options with V.M. Ybor resident Chris Vela (left), Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp and HNTB consultant Chloe Coney during a Tampa Bay Express meeting Monday night at the Barrymore Hotel. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON  |  Times]
  4. Pinellas commission set to discuss next budget, licensing board

    Local Government

    CLEARWATER –– The Pinellas County Commission will be busy on Tuesday.

  5. Pinellas grants St. Pete's request to add millions to pier budget

    Local Government

    Times Staff Writer

    The Pinellas County Commission has granted St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's request to dedicate millions more toward the city's new pier.

    The St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday  voted 7-1 to appropriate $17.6 million for the over-water portion of the Pier District. This is a rendering of what the new Pier District could look like. [Courtesy of St. Petersburg]