TARPON SPRINGS — The organization that's charged with fostering the town's business growth has fallen on hard times. The building that the Greater Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce has owned for 16 years is in foreclosure and the chamber must pack up and leave by Friday.
At 10 a.m. that day, the 5,094-square-foot building at 11 E Orange St., purchased by the chamber in 1995, will go on the auction block.
"It was a great idea at the time when it was a whole different economy," chamber president Sue Thomas said of owning the Orange Street building. "A lot has changed with the economy, and we have to deal with changes that are beyond our control. But one of the positive things is we are moving onto Tarpon Avenue."
The chamber, which has three employees, will now lease a storefront at 11 E Tarpon Ave., the city's main street. To offset the cost of rent, it will share the space with the Tarpon Springs Art Association, which is operating a gallery there called Artists' Faire Art Gallery & Gifts.
The art association won't have to pay the chamber a fee for the space, but it's selling the work of local artists with the proceeds going to the chamber.
"It's real important being downtown and combining with the arts," said City Manager Mark LeCouris. "We are known for antiques and arts. We have so many talented artists in town, so combining the two is going to be good."
The chamber's current predicament is a result of several poor decisions made more than five years ago. The chamber was nearly done paying for the Orange Street location when it took out a $250,000 loan, mainly to fight two breach-of-contract and defamation lawsuits that were filed against it in 2006. The building was used as collateral.
The chamber settled both lawsuits out of court in 2008 and 2009. The terms of those settlements are confidential.
In addition, the chamber parted ways with its then-executive director Theajo "TJ" Davis in 2007 after accusations of mishandling grant money.
"We were severely handicapped and that set us back," said Steve Boisen, the chamber's current board chairman, who was not involved in the organization's previous actions. "It depleted the reserve we had. We had a hefty mortgage and no reserves."
In May 2010, Bank of America started foreclosure proceedings on the Orange Street building, claiming the chamber owed $242,642 on the 2007 loan.
The chamber was to pay $2,075 a month until May 2027, but it hasn't made the payments on time, according to court documents. The chamber has tried to sell the building without success. In April, a Pinellas judge awarded Bank of America $313,124 for the loan and legal fees associated with the foreclosure process. The chamber was given until July 15 to come up with the money or vacate the property.
Tim Dorr, one of the Tarpon Springs business owners who filed suit against the chamber, questions the organization's effectiveness.
"A chamber is supposed to help other small business owners and provide a good atmosphere and climate for doing business," Dorr said. "It's the welcome wagon for a town working to bring new business and tourists. They have not done this at all."
Thomas, the chamber's president, counters that the organization's membership remains healthy with about 350 members. She added that the chamber has been in several locations in its 88-year history and that ultimately, it's about the services that are being provided.
"It's doesn't matter if we are hanging out at Panera Bread, it's about networking," Thomas said. "This is why somebody joins the chamber."
Mayor David Archie said the chamber's value has been its "willingness to collaborate."
"The chamber recognizes that there are other groups that are in Tarpon that are concerned about tourism and is looking to establish a tourist development council so everyone can come in and plan on how they can work together," Archie said. "That makes them a great asset to the city of Tarpon."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.