Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Business

Two big Florida chambers of commerce talk merger — but they're not in Tampa Bay

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Two major Florida chambers of commerce said Monday they may merge, explaining they can solve more regional issues at lower costs if they operate as one organization.

Not to worry, Tampa Bay. That level of cooperation and strategic thinking? It's not happening here.

The two chambers talking merger are the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. Both chambers issued releases Monday explaining their reasons to explore combining their resources.

"There are many issues that are more effectively addressed with a regional approach," stated Christine Barney, chair of Miami's chamber and CEO of Rbb Communications.

"By consolidating our power bases we increase our ability to shape key issues regionally while continuing to address the matters that impact our local businesses and economy," added Heiko Dobrikow, chair of Fort Lauderdale's chamber and general manager of the Riverside Hotel.

Could Tampa Bay ever seriously consider a single chamber of commerce for the entire metro area? After 25 years of watching this issue grow and shrink with interest, I see little on the horizon to change this area's entrenched and balkanized behavior. Separate chambers of commerce exist for each of Tampa Bay's major cities (Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater). Another dozen or more represent everything from the beaches to Pasco and Hernando counties to South Tampa and Temple Terrace, to name only a few.

Lately even the economic development corporation, or EDCs, have begun multiplying with St. Petersburg and Plant City adding their own job recruiting organizations to the EDCs already operating for Pinellas County, Tampa/Hillsborough and Pasco.

Sure, there's been plenty of talk of greater cooperation — if not consolidation — of economic development groups in the Tampa Bay market. Relations between counties, chambers and even mayors are better now than they have been in decades. But they remain separately driven organizations, separately funded with their own economic and political agendas.

The climate between Hillsborough and Pinellas business groups wavers between cooperation and testy competition depending on topic and time of day.

Here's a recent example. This month, six prominent national corporate site selectors toured the Tampa and Hillsborough market on a multiday visit, then gathered in downtown Tampa to discuss what they saw. They praised much of the economic progress. But several expressed some frustration that they did not see what Tampa Bay has to offer but only what Tampa and Hillsborough County could deliver. Companies — site selectors' customers who want to know the best places for expansion — could care less about city limits and county borders.

"Frankly, you are diminished when you limit the tour to Tampa and Hillsborough," said one site selector, Andrew Shapiro of Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co. "What about Pasco, Polk and Pinellas and," he added, "spectacular St. Petersburg?"

St. Petersburg Area chamber CEO Chris Steinocher, in a recent interview, acknowledged that St. Pete had missed an opportunity to coordinate with the visiting site selectors and hopes to make it happen next time. At the same time, St. Petersburg is about to launch its own EDC.

In the meantime, the Miami and Fort Lauderdale chambers are moving full steam ahead.

"Increased ability to work as a region is likely to yield better synergy, reduced duplication of efforts and stronger political clout," the chambers wisely state in their memorandum of understanding.

The two chambers said a task force will explore how to turn two chambers into one that is more effective and less costly. It will study other national models currently used in Houston, St. Louis and Orlando. The effort will wrap up by the end of this year.

The Fort Lauderdale chamber in Broward County has 1,311 member companies that employ more than 500,000 employees. The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce says it represents more than 400,000 employees of member companies.

The GDP of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach metro area stood at $300 billion in 2014, ranking 12th among metro areas in the country. The Tampa Bay metro market generated a GDP in that same year of $128 billion, ranked 25th nationwide.

Is there a lesson in the making here for Tampa Bay? You know how the old saying goes.

When Florida's economy is growing, everybody starts to prosper and feels little inclination to change the status quo. It's only in the economic downturns that the need to share resources gains brief credibility.

If the Miami and Fort Lauderdale chambers do merge and their combined economy starts pulling away, we may learn the hard way how more cooperation can go a long way.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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