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Businesses in Westchase and area start networking

Joel Bigham, left, founder of the Westchase Area Business Association, brainstorms with Ron Salerno, owner of Bellisimo Ristorante and Bona Pizza in West Park Village. Bigham said there was a “resounding need” for the group.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Joel Bigham, left, founder of the Westchase Area Business Association, brainstorms with Ron Salerno, owner of Bellisimo Ristorante and Bona Pizza in West Park Village. Bigham said there was a “resounding need” for the group.

Westchase had clubs for moms, singles, even art lovers.

So the upscale community must have a group for business owners, right?

That's what 32-year-old Joel Bigham, owner of Computer Valet, thought when he went looking for a networking organization to join this summer.

To his surprise, there was nothing.

His wife, Marlene, noticed that, like Joel, many small-business owners in their neighborhood had no place to network.

"In my industry face to face and getting involved in the community is important to the almighty dollar," said Joel Bigham, whose company specializes in computer repair, Web hosting and networking.

Bigham's business was less than a year old and struggling. He knew he needed to get his services in front of a larger audience.

The couple created the Westchase Area Business Association. Using Marlene's sales and marketing background, they then launched a Facebook page to reach out to other small-business owners.

Their first meeting was held at My Gym in the Westchase Town Center on Aug. 28. The Bighams brought bottles of wine. Olympia Catering & Events supplied shrimp appetizers. Spunky Spirits, another Westchase company, donated mixed drink supplies.

It was their idea personified — businesses in the community teaming up to support one another. Still they kept their expectations low, figuring maybe 20 people would show up.

"We collected 63 business cards," Bigham said. "There was an absolute, resounding need."

About 120 people have joined WABA's online site.

It's no secret that the economy has hit Westchase businesses hard. In West Park Village, for example, several storefronts sit vacant, and owners who remain say traffic has lagged for months.

"With the economy being the way it is, it's more important than ever for businesses to stand together," said Ron Salerno, owner of Bellisimo Ristorante and Bona Pizza in West Park Village.

Beyond networking within Westchase, WABA aims to get the word out that there are destination businesses in the area.

The group is planning a business expo in the spring with hopes that it attracts residents not familiar with the area, Bigham said.

"I feel people don't know these businesses are around them," Bigham said. "We buy from who we like, so it's important for us to get to know them."

Before WABA, Westchase business owners looking for an organization to join opted for either the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, in Pinellas, or the Carrollwood Business Association, miles away.

While both organizations have members from Westchase, they agree there is room for WABA.

"There are a lot of people who would be happy to do business with local people where they don't have to travel so far," said Lisa Demmi, president of the Carrollwood group, which has 400 members.

WABA founders hope to handle their organization in an informal way. There are no membership fees or committee positions to fill. Anyone interested just needs to show up at either the monthly coffee meetings or happy hours, which occur at different businesses throughout the neighborhood. Their next meeting is Friday.

In 2006, Dr. Nathan Bonilla-Warford, an optometrist, opened Bright Eyes Family Vision Care in West Park Village. He struggled to connect with other business owners in the community.

"I didn't know Joel's business existed; I have a computer right now that I could use assistance with," he said. "There are lots of other services available out here that I hadn't encountered before."

"Westchase is a wonderful place, but if you don't come, you don't know it's here," Bonilla-Warford said. "If we can give people a reason to come here, they'll come back."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

To join or learn more

The next meeting of the Westchase Area Business Association will be held from 7 to 9 a.m. today at Westchase Chiropractic, 10981 Countryway Blvd. For information go to yourwaba.com.

Businesses in Westchase and area start networking 11/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 12, 2009 3:30am]

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