PINELLAS PARK — Local business owners who are finding it hard to weather these tough times find a sympathetic ear and the voice of experience when they turn to the chamber of commerce for advice.
The Pinellas Park/Mid-County Chamber of Commerce has had its share of lean times and money woes that made it doubtful at times that the organization could survive. That's in the past. Today, the chamber has a new vibrancy and big plans to turn the once-struggling organization into a regional powerhouse that will help bring business and tourism to the Tampa Bay area.
The turnaround took time but it gained its major momentum last January when the Pinellas Park/Mid-County Chamber merged with the nearby Gateway Chamber of Commerce. The increased membership — about 450 total at the time of the merger — gave the organization a larger base of volunteers and new energy.
The members chose Housh Ghovaee of Northside Engineering to be the chairman of the board. Ghovaee had once headed the Pinellas Park/Mid-county Chamber, so he had experience to help the transition along. He also had lots of ideas that the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber of Commerce is pushing.
"Things are working out," Ghovaee said, "but we're still thinking bigger."
Perhaps the best known of those bigger initiatives is the billboard on Interstate 4 near Disney World. The billboard, which urges tourists to visit the area, is a joint effort of Clear Channel and the chamber. Clear Channel is providing the advertising space for free for one year.
"There's no other chamber that has put up a billboard on I-4," Ghovaee said.
The ideas go much further than billboards.
The chamber has reached out to Pinellas Park's horse community and is helping sponsor a horse show today. On the surface, that might not seem to be a bold move, but it signals a new attitude for Pinellas Park's movers and shakers. The Pinellas Park council and the city's horse community have had a rather touchy relationship over the past decade or more. Council members often brag about its equestrian areas but are less friendly when it comes to helping promote horse-related activities.
Ghovaee and the chamber want to cure that relationship, seeing the horses as a way to entice more people to visit the city to see the horses or to participate in equine-related activities and to spend their money while there.
Other initiatives include an upcoming lunch and learn session featuring Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida. MacManus is nationally known for her expertise in public opinion and intergenerational politics. She is scheduled to discuss Florida politics at all levels and provide insight into the relationship of politics and business. The free event is open to the public although an RSVP is required because lunch will be provided. For information, call Donna Lofgren, 544-4777.
The chamber is also looking at area transportation, especially the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.
"They truly have not done a good job," Ghovaee said. The chamber wants to form a committee to come up with ideas to improve service and to make it more inviting for families.
The chamber is not forgetting its members amid the grandiose plans, Ghovaee said. Members are working on a program that will allow visitors to the chamber's Web site a chance to click on the name of a member restaurant. The click will pull up a video of the restaurant, giving a potential customer a view of the food, the kitchen and a way to meet the owner and staff.
While the events and plans are designed to improve and promote the Tampa Bay area, particularly Pinellas Park and the Gateway area, they also serve as a way to encourage chamber membership. And they seem to be working. At the time of the merger, the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber had about 450 members. Now it has about 800.
When the two merged to form the Pinellas Park/Gateway Chamber of Commerce, the organization had about 450 members. Now it has about 800. The goal is to have at least 1,000.
That's what's needed before a chamber can really qualify as regional, Ghovaee said.