St. Petersburg Chamber rises from grave after tough year

Like Lazarus, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce is rising from the business grave.

Hints of those darker days emerged Tuesday, couched in diplomatic ChamberSpeak during an otherwise upbeat annual chamber dinner at downtown's Renaissance Vinoy Resort. Let me translate: In recent years, the chamber stumbled badly, alienating local businesses and inflating membership numbers even as more companies stopped paying dues. Worse, back then, the chamber crowed it was the biggest chamber in the metro area.

In early 2011, the chamber's board hired a new CEO, Chris Steinocher, succeeding John Long. Steinocher's title last year should have been chief triage officer. It has taken emergency action by Steinocher to downsize staff, settle lawsuits and pull the chamber out of the red. Most of all, he and his board are rebuilding frayed relations with former members who once felt shunned.

Why do we care? Aren't chambers of commerce still a business cliche of always-sunny, do-little organizations? Maybe. But now this chamber has an opportunity to break that mold. It can help make not only St. Petersburg but also the Tampa Bay region become a better-quality place for businesses and residents.

Steinocher, 47, is not your father's chamber of commerce chief. The Emory University graduate spent 16-plus years working with Stuart Rogel at the Tampa Bay Partnership trying to build a stronger regional economic identity for this tri-city metro area. Over time, Steinocher will be eager to broaden his chamber's ambitions. But right now, he's going back to the most basic chamber function for its members: What can we do to help you grow your business?

A few whiffs of new thinking arose at Tuesday's dinner. Table centerpieces of fresh local vegetables were signals of a community campaign to introduce gardens in many south Pinellas elementary schools. And dinner speaker Peter Kageyama, St. Petersburg author of the book For the Love of Cities, shared his vision of how growing a core of committed people who love and give back to their cities is just as important as recruiting new businesses.

Steinocher's a fan of Pinellas County efforts to pursue a mass-transit plan (and a tax needed to pay for it) — despite Hillsborough County's recent failure to achieve a similar transportation dream. He talks about a regional light-rail system that may one day link a medical cluster of Bayfront/All Children's hospitals with nearby St. Anthony's. Together, the St. Petersburg and Tampa chambers of commerce are pondering ways to boost the Tampa Bay Rays near term and keep them somewhere around here in the long term. Steinocher's also backing USF St. Petersburg's pursuit of a new building for its business school, and exploring how nearby Albert Whitted Airport might grow.

Steinocher praises many, but often credits the city's new favorite son, Bill Edwards, the mortgage-entertainment entrepreneur. Edwards is giving time and money to re-energize downtown's Mahaffey Theater. Soon we'll see his vision of a renamed BayWalk, which he now owns.

The chamber's even dusting off its forgotten mission as an economic development group.

After such intensive rehab, let's see what this on-the-upswing chamber can deliver.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

St. Petersburg Chamber rises from grave after tough year 01/25/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 10:04pm]

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