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New president Bob Clifford says Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce plays a crucial role

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce has had its ups and downs in recent years, with declining membership and a lot of staff turnover.

Don't believe us? Ask the man who's running the place now.

"We're changing the way we do business. We weren't doing a very good job of getting information out," said Bob Clifford, who's been the chamber's president since April.

Clifford, a longtime Clearwater bank executive, is on a mission to revitalize Pinellas County's second-largest chamber of commerce.

The effort involves a new team of staffers, a new headquarters, a revamped Web site and more Hispanic outreach. It involves initiatives like spearheading a new downtown convention center and suggesting tweaks to Clearwater's strict rules governing business signs.

It also means looking for new strategies to carry out the chamber's core job of fostering business opportunities. To Clifford, that means offering seminars and tools that will really be useful to businesses struggling through a recession.

"We have to go outside the box. It's no longer just cocktails and networking," Clifford said. "Ten years ago, we'd just go to the Belleair Country Club, have a couple of drinks and rub elbows. We have to change from acting like captains of industry to being facilitators of information."

Here's what the Clearwater chamber is up to:

Membership: The chamber has about 1,650 members, down from more than 2,000 about five years ago. Clifford says most chambers of commerce are struggling with this trend, but the Clearwater chamber has "stabilized" its membership and has made modest gains over the past six months.

Headquarters: The chamber had planned to move out of its aging offices at 1130 Cleveland St. and into the bottom of the condo tower being built next door. But the tower's construction has slowed to a snail's pace, so the chamber is looking elsewhere and should announce a new location soon.

"The building that we're in needs a lot of deferred maintenance and upgrades," Clifford said. "It would have been hard to put money into it, not knowing if we were going to be here two or three more years."

Web site: The chamber operates two sites. The one for tourists, www.visitclearwaterflorida.com, gets a million hits a month and is viewed as a success.

The one for members, www.clearwaterflorida.org, offers outdated newsletters and press releases. It will get an update and a new look. The two sites will be tied closer together as well.

Hispanic outreach: In his banking career, Clifford noticed a rise in Hispanic business banking clients, not to mention the trend toward Latino storefronts along Drew Street.

The chamber recently held a business development seminar for Latinos and was "stunned" when 20 people showed up, Clifford said. It expects about 60 business owners to attend its first-ever Hispanic business networking event later this month.

Downtown convention center: This is a long-range goal to boost tourism. The chamber is studying the feasibility of luring private investors to build a real convention center downtown — a place that's actually built for conventions, unlike the makeshift Harborview Center. The thinking is that Clearwater Beach would be a big draw for conventions, but it would be too expensive and difficult to put a convention center on the beach itself.

New staff: Sheri Callahan is vice president of community relations. Sandi Carnagey is vice president of membership development. Cathy Germer is vice president of business and economic development. Gerri Raymond is vice president of tourism.

All four came aboard in recent months.

So did Clifford, who had been a longtime volunteer on the chamber's board. When he took the helm in April, he became the chamber's fourth president in just 16 months. Clifford took over when previous president Doug Linder left.

"Doug resigned to pursue other opportunities; we're very grateful for his service," Carol Hague, chairwoman of the chamber's board, said at the time. "Bob seems to be the perfect fit to move the chamber forward. He's passionate about the community."

Clifford previously worked for Synovus Bank, SunTrust Bank and other banks during his 30 years in the area.

He says he "fell in love" with Clearwater while vacationing from Buffalo, N.Y., in 1979, and bought a house before returning north. "It's one of those typical crazy Florida stories," he said.

The job of revitalizing the chamber is even more challenging during a time of such economic turmoil. For instance, a lot of the banks that used to sponsor chamber events are cutting down on their involvement.

But Clifford argues that making business contacts is more crucial than ever.

"This is not the time to bury your head in the sand," he said. "You need to be visible in the community. We're more important today than we were five years ago."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

New president Bob Clifford says Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce plays a crucial role 07/03/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 3, 2009 8:05pm]
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