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.