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Chamber chooses high-profile exec

St. Petersburg's efforts to become a big-league city will get some help from a football coach-turned-chamber executive named Friday as the new head of staff for the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

Russ Sloan, president of the Muncie-Delaware County Chamber of Commerce in Muncie, Ind., will take over as executive vice president of the St. Petersburg chamber April 4. He fills the vacancy created by the death of Paul Getting last October.

"He's an experienced pro who knows what's going on," said St. Petersburg chamber president James W. Albright, who introduced Sloan to board members and the press.

Sloan, 55, is a high-profile leader with an outgoing approach that presents a marked contrast to the low-key style Getting preferred.

Sloan hasn't been afraid to take a stand on hot issues. In Muncie, he was at the center of a controversy over who should have the authority to spend economic development income tax funds. His opponents accused the chamber of having too much power and being part of a shadow government.

In Fresno, Calif., where he was head of the chamber before moving to Indiana, Sloan led campaigns for ballot initiatives.

One, which passed, instituted a half-cent sales tax for road improvement projects. Another, which failed, would have repealed a city ordinance guaranteeing police officers and firefighters would be paid prevailing wages.

"I'm a very pro-active person," Sloan said. He says he sees it as his job to present the chamber's elected leaders with options for action. "I have a lot of imagination. I'll probably present a lot of options."

"I wanted somebody who would be strong for St. Petersburg, who would help to make us a full partner in the region," said Eugene Oliver of SouthTrust Bank, who was chairman of the search committee. He said the committee considered 125 applicants from an initial pool of more than 175 and recommended Sloan unanimously.

"He was a clear No. 1 choice," Oliver said.

Sloan won points with chamber leaders for his experience in economic development and in the traditional chamber chores of fund-raising and recruiting new members, as well as in sports.

An all-conference defensive end on the University of Missouri's 1959 Orange Bowl team, Sloan spent 11 years as a high school and college football coach. At Northeast Missouri University, he compiled a 22-5-1 record over three years, won conference championships and earned a spot in the university's athletic hall of fame.

While living in Missouri, Sloan was active in Republican politics. In 1972 he ran for Congress, losing the election but attracting support from conservatives, including supporters of George Wallace's 1968 presidential bid and a John Birch Society leader, according to the Kansas City Star.

After the election he went to work in Missouri state government as an assistant director of revenue in charge of the transportation division, which includes driver's licenses and auto tags.

But he wasn't ready to give up sports. He became athletic director at Southeast Missouri State University and then in 1979 moved west to Fresno State University in California. He started as head of the athletic foundation and moved on to athletic director.

He says athletic fund-raising grew from $468,000 to $2.4-million while he was there. However, the Fresno Bee reported that Sloan's views and those of the university administration did not mesh and he was not rehired when his contract expired in 1982.

Sloan then worked as director of business development for the Bank of Fresno, director of franchising for Day-N-Nite Markets and executive director of the California Bowl before finding his niche in chamber work in 1985.

He became executive director of the Fresno City and County Chamber of Commerce, which doubled its budget and substantially increased its membership during his four-year tenure.

Sloan left California in 1989 to become president of the Muncie chamber, where he has been known primarily for his economic development efforts. The chamber won an award in 1992 from the National Association of Membership Directors for being one of the nation's 15 best chambers serving communities of less than 200,000 people.

Sloan said the Muncie chamber has 915 members and a $2.4-million budget, while the Fresno chamber has 2,400 members and a $1.2-million budget. By comparison, the St. Petersburg chamber has 2,000 members and a $1.5-million budget.

Sloan said he is enthusiastic about coming to St. Petersburg.

"St. Petersburg is on the verge of some great things nationally as well as regionally," he said. He praised the building of the ThunderDome as "a phenomenal effort of vision."

The chamber did not disclose what it will be paying Sloan, who recently turned down an offer to become executive vice president of the Naples Area Chamber of Commerce. He also has been a finalist for jobs at other chambers.

Sloan and his wife, Peggy, are house-hunting in St. Petersburg this weekend, planning to return to Indiana on Tuesday. Their three children are grown.

Joseph Cronin, the chamber's interim executive vice president, will stay on the job through the end of March. Cronin, who was a candidate for the permanent position, said he would have been disappointed only if another local candidate had been chosen.

"This is going to be a very smooth transition," he said.

Russ Sloan

Age: 55.

Born: Columbia, Mo.

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees, University of Missouri.

Athletic career: All-conference end, 1959 Orange Bowl team; football coach, Northeast Missouri State University; athletic director, Southeast Missouri State University and Fresno State University; executive director, California Bowl.

Government career: Unsuccessful candidate for Congress, 1972; Missouri assistant director of revenue, transportation division.

Chamber career: Executive director, Fresno City and County Chamber of Commerce, 1985-1989; president, Muncie-Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, 1989-present.

Personal: Wife, Peggy; three children; five grandchildren.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.