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St. Petersburg chamber chief resigns, but leaves stronger group

Five years ago, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce needed a defibrillator to jolt it back to life and give the local business community better reasons to get reinvolved and pay their dues.

Craig Sher, who was a Sembler Co. developer and chamber chairman back in 2005, pushed to find a gung-ho leader to replace retiring chamber chief Russ Sloan. Enter John T. Long III, the hyper-enthusiastic head of the chamber of commerce in Kalamazoo, Mich. He started here in January 2006.

On Thursday, Long announced his resignation from the St. Petersburg chamber, saying he feels the chamber's "kicked butt" and that the bulk of the goals he set years ago have been met. He and his wife Cindy plan to stay in St. Petersburg. John, volunteering he's "smitten" with the city and region, will explore opportunities in economic development or other fields. He leaves the chamber Aug. 2.

"I've decided to move forward," said Long, 63. "I'm looking to see what's next."

I first met Long over breakfast at the St. Petersburg Hilton in January 2006. He had not started his chamber job yet, but was down from Michigan looking at housing. His wore a black beret atop a balding head and spoke a mile a minute. It threw me at first. Not your typical chamber guy.

Indeed. I ran into Long again on Tuesday at a downtown luncheon celebrating the coming opening of the new Dali Museum. Long was among a few business leaders who had happily agreed to have a thin Dali-style moustache stenciled on for the occasion. He surprised his wife later that day with his rakish look.

Five years earlier, chamber chairman Sher wanted the chamber to become a force to raise St. Petersburg's economy to the next level. He wanted chamber membership, then at 2,100, to increase to 3,000 by 2010.

That did not quite happen. Then again, Sher anticipated neither the nasty recession nor the decline in downtown's once-booming BayWalk, one of his own retail projects. What did happen is Long successfully pushed chamber members above 2,400 — a number, he has touted, that makes his chamber the largest among many in the Tampa Bay area. Long helped attract such area heavyweights as former Tech Data CEO Steve Raymund and Humana regional chief Sid Morgan to chair the chamber. The chamber also morphed from an apolitical group to one with its own political action committee. In 2008, the chamber was honored as one of the best in the country.

It's a long and easy tradition to lampoon the stereotypical chamber of commerce as a go-along, get-along organization with milquetoast goals. But chambers with sharper leaders now know they must play an urgent role with struggling local economies. And they must help businesses understand how much more globally competitive things are becoming.

So, to John Long, thanks for getting us at least this far. Mary Lallucci, 57, already was named the chamber's interim chief. A search for Long's successor begins soon.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg chamber chief resigns, but leaves stronger group 07/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 7:02am]
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