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For new president, chamber a chance to stay involved

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Few people seemed to want to run for president of the Land O'Lakes Chamber of Commerce after Valerie Miller announced she would not run again.

At first, Darla Wright, the chamber's secretary, was one of the many people who shied from a spot on the May ballot.

Then she changed her mind and ran unchallenged.

"My first thought was "No way,' because I know it's a lot of work, a big responsibility," Wright said. "But, being on the (chamber) board, it is really easy to get involved. And that is what I wanted to do."

Wright was sworn in Friday at the chamber's installation banquet. She takes office July 1.

Wright, 31, has lived in Land O' Lakes for five years, but grew up in nearby Zephyrhills. Her community service experience includes organizations such as the American Heart Association and Junior Achievement. She also taught first-grade religious education classes at St. Joseph Catholic Church.

She is an assistant vice president and sales-manager supervisor at the SunBank and Trust Co. branch on State Road 54 in Land O'Lakes.

A University of South Florida graduate, she has a bachelor's degree in finance. She has shown interest in local business and financial issues in the community.

In 1993, she ran for honorary mayor of the chamber, but lost to Maribel Penichet. Despite that loss, Wright said, the experience put her foot in the door for future endeavors.

"I didn't win, but it gave me a great chance to get out in the community and meet people," she said.

That exposure encouraged her to run successfully for chamber secretary in 1994. Wright also became captain of one of the chamber ambassador teams.

Russell Adams, a Land O'Lakes real estate broker and member of the chamber's nominating committee, encouraged Wright to run for president because he thought the job was right for her.

Adams said he thinks Wright deserves the position because she is familiar with the inner workings of the chamber.

"She's worked in many different capacities," Adams said. "She is well-known in the community, and has raised a lot of money for the chamber. We're lucky she was interested in this position."

Two other chamber members are expected to make Wright's job a lot easier.

Kim Walsh, who coordinated the 1994 Land O'Lakes Fall Flapjack Festival, has agreed to do it again. And Walsh's mother, Marjorie, has been promoted to executive director of the chamber (see related story).

"The Flapjack Festival is our biggest fund-raiser," Wright said. "I knew with someone experienced willing to do it a second year . . . we won't have to reinvent the wheel again."

The executive director is expected to handle day-to-day chamber work, oversee events and recruit new members. It's a position that had been dormant for several years. The lack of an executive director put the chamber at a disadvantage, she said.

"We are the only chamber in Pasco County to not have a director," she said. "Our chamber is growing, and this is something we need."

Miller, last year's president, is one of the main reasons Wright decided to run for president.

"I knew (Miller) wouldn't just drop it in my lap and leave me hanging," Wright said. "She will be a big assistance. It's nice to know I can lean on her."

Wright can expect help whenever she needs it, Miller said. But she has confidence that Wright will succeed on her own.

"Darla is going to do a great job. In a traditionally male board wall, it's nice to see women up there," she said. "She knows what to expect and what the community needs, and she will give us a fresh look at what our goals should be.

"She knows that all she has to do is pick up the phone, and I'll be there for her."

So what does Wright plan to do with her year as chamber president?

"This year will be a turning point, and my goal is to make sure this position does what it is intended to do," she said.

Seminars in finance and computers for local businesses will be a major focus in the upcoming year. Networking is the key to a successful business industry in Land O'Lakes, Wright said.

"We're so close to Tampa, that when we think of buying something or a particular service, we immediately think about running to north Tampa because we're so close," she said. "People need to know what's right here in their backyard, so we can keep the money in Pasco County."

The two hottest issues right now are water and transportation problems. The chamber already has taken action to seek improvements to roads and lakes in the area.

"The chamber has expressed its concern through letters to the governor," Wright said. "We want to be involved. Since there is no city government here in Land O'Lakes, generally the area looks to the chamber as its information center and quasi-government for everything. So, it's our responsibility to get that information disseminated to our chamber members."

Tim Hayes, a Land O'Lakes lawyer and former chamber president who now serves on the chamber board, will be a liaison between the chamber and community for these issues. Hayes also has been a member of the Central Pasco Coalition, a watchdog group formed to regulate central Pasco growth.

Hayes will head the new community affairs committee for the chamber. He said he intends to focus on changes to local roads, such as bike paths and crosswalks, that might benefit residents and businesses alike.

Certainly, central Pasco will continue to grow, Wright said, but she hopes county commissioners and developers will show some restraint and preserve the suburban quality of life in Land O'Lakes.

"I wouldn't want this to become a huge metropolitan area," she said. "I'd like to see it grow, but keep our small-town atmosphere."