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Tampa Bay area chambers of commerce adjust to recessionary times

In the face of declining sponsorships and struggling members, local chambers of commerce have had to make adjustments — some that have been met with criticism.

Recent changes in the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce's popular Leadership St. Pete program prompted the planning committee to resign last week, a move backed by the program's alumni association.

Other area chambers are experimenting as the economic downturn crimps members' budgets.

For the past four months, the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has about 1,650 members, has allowed members to pay dues in monthly installments instead of annual lump sums.

Chamber president Bob Clifford said that while new memberships are up, renewals are slightly behind last year's.

"It is always easy to operate if there is a lot of new people coming in the front door, but you also have to pay attention to who is going out the back door," he said.

Despite a surge in popularity of some programs, such as an economic summit and legislative breakfast, the chamber has lost some of its larger sponsors, including banks, he said.

"Those dollars have pretty much dried up," Clifford said. "Some of the bigger banks have even dropped out of the chamber, which is unusual."

At the annual economic summit, last year's keynote speaker sponsor, SunTrust Bank, had to be replaced by several smaller business sponsors, he said.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has had similar sponsorship challenges.

"It takes a little more effort to get the right sponsorships and venue and the right price point. … But it's a good thing. We have had to learn to refine things," president Bob Rohrlack said.

Chamber membership has gone down slightly to about 1,900 members, said Brooke Boccacino, senior vice president of membership and marketing.

Not every chamber is experiencing sponsorship difficulties. Kathy Dunkley, the executive director of the Central Pasco chamber, said while the collapse of the real estate market has caused some members to go out of business, the chamber has still retained several major sponsors.

The area's largest chamber, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, has stayed steady with a membership of about 2,800, said Bonnie Tefft, the chamber's senior vice president of membership and communications. The chamber has negotiated with members who are struggling to pay dues to waive membership fees for a year, she said.

But controversy has been brewing between the chamber and some alumni of its six-month development group, Leadership St. Pete.

The chamber wants to increase the program's class size, raise tuition and have a more active role in the applicant selection process, said Kurt Petersen, the program's former planning committee chairman.

Petersen said he resigned over his concern that the program's integrity would be jeopardized in order for the chamber to maintain cash flow, such as by appointing participants that had not been selected by the committee.

The resignations of Petersen, his chair-elect Marcos Ibarguen and immediate past chair Richard Franz were supported by the program's alumni association.

"For the last couple of years, the chamber has been trying to take the program in a different direction than what (the planning committee) felt it should be in. … We're just sad that we can't agree on the same future," said Susan Robertson, an alumni association board member and a former chair of the committee.

Petersen said that Leadership St. Pete already helps generate money for the chamber.

"We are far from a drag. We contribute financially to the chamber," he said.

"Our fear was that as push came to shove, the chamber would feel the pressure to maintain the class size," he said.

This week, Rep. Bill Heller, former CEO and dean of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and former Gov. Bob Martinez were chosen to lead the committee. Neither has experience working on the committee.

The chamber insists that the changes are not unusual.

"I don't know many businesses that are able to keep charging the same prices every year. In that sense, the chamber is no different," said Alma Ayala, senior vice president of economic and community development.

Nicole Norfleet can be reached at nnorfleet@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8785.

Tampa Bay area chambers of commerce adjust to recessionary times 07/03/09 [Last modified: Monday, July 6, 2009 12:17pm]
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