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 Danielson@tampabay.com, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.