Thursday, April 19, 2018
Business

Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce retools protocol job

TAMPA — For years, being the director of the international protocol office for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce largely meant orchestrating the formalities and decorum necessary to welcome visiting foreign VIPs.

But this fall Irma Bridgeford, once described as the local "queen of protocol," left the job, and the chamber decided to give the position a broader focus with an emphasis on business development.

"It was time to modernize and update," says chamber president Bob Rohrlack, who wants "a much stronger, comprehensive program" — one that gives local companies the training and assurance they need to compete for foreign trade. "Usually, the biggest obstacle in getting a company engaged in the international arena is that there's a fear of the unknown."

Still, the change stirred concerns among some members of the Tampa Bay Consular Corps, including socialite Jill Kelley, now swept up in a media frenzy over her friendships with two top generals at MacDill Air Force Base.

Kelley, who was appointed an honorary consul in August by the South Korean government, never approached the chamber about the change to the protocol job — or anything else, Rohrlack said. But she did raise the issue with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Kelley did not respond to a request for comment made through her press agent. Buckhorn said he didn't talk to Kelley, but thinks she probably left him a question in a telephone message. He responded with an email on Sept. 13.

"Apparently there was a decision to go in a different direction with a greater focus on international trade development and business relocation," Buckhorn wrote Kelley. "Obviously, the honorary consuls will continue to be a part of that, but it was the consensus of all concerned that the job as had originally been envisioned required a different skill set."

Kelley, 37, is no longer an honorary consul. In November, South Korea's deputy foreign minister said Kelley had inappropriately tried to use her title to "peddle influence." A New York businessman has said she offered to use her access to South Korean officials to help him broker a business deal and asked for a finder's fee amounting to $80 million. Her attorney denies it.

Separate from Kelley, Buckhorn met in early November with Tampa shipping executive Arthur Savage, who is an honorary consul of Norway and Denmark and is the dean of the local consular corps, and banker Jose Vivero, honorary vice consul of Spain.

The corps has grown, especially in the last two years, and the local consuls wanted to make sure their work to welcome foreign dignitaries and to promote good relations between the bay area and other countries was not being de-emphasized, Buckhorn said.

They also valued Bridgeford, whom Vivero described as "very well-liked, very well-respected, very responsive to the needs of the consuls."

"To me, before you start dealing with trade you have to develop relationships between the people of any particular country and local officials," he said. "At this point, I have no idea what the chamber is going to do. It has never been made known to us."

The chamber's change of focus includes the hiring of Deborah Wilkinson as executive director of the Tampa/Hillsborough International Protocol and Trade Council. Wilkinson came from a job as economic development manager and chief of protocol for Broward County. In her first year there, she developed an international trade strategy for the county. In nine years, she helped facilitate about $900 million in foreign direct investment and sales for targeted industries.

In her new job here, Wilkinson will handle the same kind of protocol duties that Bridgeford did. In 2009, Bridgeford told the Times that about 25 foreign dignitaries come to the area each year.

But Wilkinson also will put on educational forums and export readiness workshops for existing local businesses and will help develop policies related to countries whose potential economic development officials want to explore.

The chamber notes that the change in focus comes as the Port of Tampa is hiring Paul Anderson as its new CEO and as Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano emphasizes the importance of international flights. The city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, the airport and port provide $140,000 annually to fund the protocol office, and Tampa Bay & Co., the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida give in-kind donations.

Chamber officials said Wilkinson's past work developing global business strategies provided structure to international trade efforts and coordination for all organizations involved in trade activity. A similar effort is underway here.

Meanwhile, Rohrlack said the chamber has had detailed discussions with Savage to ensure that the work of the consular corps does not lose momentum.

"We don't want to see it diminished," Rohrlack said. "If anything, we want to see it intensified."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected], (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Comments
Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

Spring break, hurricane relief boosted Tampa Bay hotels in March

The Tampa Bay area’s hotel occupancy rate rose to 87.5 percent in March, the highest level in three years. The rise was fueled by spring break vacationers as well as insurance adjusters and hurricane cleanup crews flooding the state to restore it aft...
Updated: 12 hours ago
St. Petersburg police remove disabled adults from ‘deplorable’ assisted living facilities

St. Petersburg police remove disabled adults from ‘deplorable’ assisted living facilities

ST. PETERSBURG — Beef jerky, mayonnaise and Altoids mints were the only edible things in view inside one of the houses. There was no running water. The refrigerator was empty. A bed sat on top of the deteriorating living room floor. Cigarette butts b...
Updated: 17 minutes ago
Marriott Edition to bring five-star hotel ambitions to Water Street Tampa

Marriott Edition to bring five-star hotel ambitions to Water Street Tampa

TAMPA — At the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, hotelier Ian Schrager transformed a Jazz Age building with its own rich history into a destination offering even more heady experiences — extravagant, edgy and bohemian.In Tampa, Schrager will have...
Updated: 25 minutes ago
Here’s your first look at what will be Riverwalk Place, Tampa’s tallest tower

Here’s your first look at what will be Riverwalk Place, Tampa’s tallest tower

TAMPA — Developers on Thursday detailed plans for what they touted as the tallest building on Florida’s west coast, with condominiums priced in six and seven figures and a shimmering glass design they say would stand out in the skylines of New York, ...
Updated: 25 minutes ago
The St. Pete Pier takes another step forward

The St. Pete Pier takes another step forward

ST. PETERSBURG — Development of the city’s long-awaited pier advanced another step Thursday.The City Council approved a $15 million construction contract and additional money to design a waterside restaurant, build a playground and ferret out naming ...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Free rides on PSTA and HART buses to celebrate Earth Day

Free rides on PSTA and HART buses to celebrate Earth Day

Those who use mass transit across the Tampa Bay area can ride for free on Sunday.To celebrate Earth Day, both the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) will be offering free rides on Su...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Wells Fargo said to be target of $1 billion fine

Wells Fargo said to be target of $1 billion fine

Federal regulators are poised to impose a $1 billion penalty on Wells Fargo for a number of alleged misdeeds, including forcing customers to buy auto insurance policies that they didn’t need, according to people briefed on the regulatory action. The ...
Updated: 12 hours ago
Tech Data names Rich Hume to take over as CEO

Tech Data names Rich Hume to take over as CEO

CLEARWATER — A longtime IBM executive is becoming the new leader of Tampa Bay’s largest public company. Tech Data on Thursday named Richard "Rich" Hume as its new CEO effective June 6. Hume joined Tech Data two years ago and is currently the chief op...
Published: 04/19/18
LA Fitness tones up Hillsborough location

LA Fitness tones up Hillsborough location

When LA Fitness on West Hillsborough Ave. reopens mid-summer, it will have undergone a $5 million renovation and a complete transformation. Closed since November 2017, the 10-year-old facility was completely torn down and is still undergoing construc...
Published: 04/19/18
Kids have fun and gain coding skills at Code Ninja in Westchase

Kids have fun and gain coding skills at Code Ninja in Westchase

A new program that teaches coding to kids is coming to the Tampa Bay area. Code Ninjas is a Houston-based franchise that is opening its first location in Westchase in early May. There are plans for other centers in Carrollwood, South Tampa, New Tampa...
Published: 04/19/18