Monday, May 21, 2018
Business

Smaller but wiser, St. Petersburg chamber rebounds

On Friday, Chris Steinocher wraps up his second year as CEO of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. So far, his efforts to revive the chamber's credibility — financially and, more to the point, to the city's business community — are on track.

The chamber's annual dinner will be held today at the Vinoy Renaissance Resort and attended by more than 700 guests. That's up from a healthy 560 a year ago when such a turnout confirmed the chamber's once-alienated membership was returning to the fold.

Dan Heath, who co-wrote the 2010 book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, will keynote the dinner for a good reason. Steinocher, 48, found guidance in the theme after taking over the chamber in 2011 only to find it financially strapped and its members demoralized.

"The book is about change and how to get people to think and do things differently," Steinocher says.

John Long, Steinocher's predecessor, liked to hype the chamber's size, crowing how its 2,000-plus members made it the biggest chamber in the area. Now that its books have been reconciled with actual dues-paying businesses, the chamber has about 900 members. That's up by 280 from last year.

Steinocher says he has picked the little things the chamber does well and does those more often to improve his organization. Heath's book calls those little things "bright spots" — a theme adopted in the chamber's 2012 annual report.

It turns out many of the chamber's brightest spots are the businesspeople who increasingly ask Steinocher what they can do to help. The CEO makes sure he's ready with three or four tasks each day, given how often folks reach out to him.

One big plus is the trio of 2012 chamber leaders — chairman Dave Punzak of Carlton Fields, vice chair Marcus Greene of BB&T and treasurer Bill Ulbricht of St. Anthony's Health Care. All three agreed to stay on an extra year. That gives the chamber breathing room while it rebuilds a leadership pipeline and Steinocher time for new initiatives.

"There's a new energy at the chamber," says Punzak, who expects a more outward-looking organization this year. He's most proud of the return of the chamber's role as an advocate in the city. Whether it's waterfront development, the new Pier process or the future of the Tampa Bay Rays, says Punzak: "I like that we have a voice again."

When I caught up to Steinocher on Wednesday, he was touring the former downtown YMCA building, now vacant, whose fate may depend on a music promoter finding the funds to convert it into a music museum and venture. The chamber CEO eyeballed one floor of it as a possible site for technology startups.

The chamber just hired Kristina Alspaw as its visitor development and promotions specialist. She will market the city as a tourist destination.

That brings us to the chamber's "Good 'Burgers." It's a new and more casual awards event to vote for and honor St. Petersburgers — persons, businesses and events — that contribute the most to the city.

Nine "most valuable 'burgers" in the running range from BayWalk investor Bill Edwards and HSN CEO Mindy Grossman to [email protected]'s Bob Devin Jones.

There are bright spots aplenty.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

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