The Seminole City Council needs to keep its tight grip on the taxpayers' wallet in talks with the Greater Seminole Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber does not just want a helping hand in finding a new home. It has its hand out for an unreasonably large gift.
The chamber already has a sweetheart deal from the city. It leases its current home on 113th Street from the city for $1 a year, and it has not been performing maintenance on the building as its lease requires. The building is in bad shape, and the chamber wants to move.
The chamber's solution? It just wants the city to sell the 113th Street property and use the proceeds to renovate the former library building on Johnson Boulevard. The building is owned by Marjorie Johnson, who has agreed to give it to the city for use by the chamber.
For its new home, the chamber wants to contribute a big fat zero. It does not want to raise money. It does not want to pay rent to reimburse the city for any renovations to the old library. It wants a new home for free. "Give us a turnkey building that's decent," chamber president-elect Tim Schuler told council members last week, "and we'll take care of it."
So far, council members are wisely refusing to agree to such a giveaway. The pressure from the business community is likely to increase as talks continue, but council members should refuse to buckle as they look for other solutions.
Chambers of commerce are valuable assets to any community and serve a variety of important functions, from courting and cultivating businesses to acting as civic cheerleaders. They are clearinghouses for information and incubators for new ideas. But they are special interest groups, and local governments must resist the temptation to treat them as private subsidiaries of City Hall.
Cozy relationships can create unforeseen entanglements later that will not serve taxpayers well. In Clearwater, the city virtually gave the local Chamber of Commerce a prime piece of property on the bluff overlooking the harbor in the 1960s. To their credit, city officials included a provision that required the chamber to sell the property back to the city if the chamber moved. But it has just cost Clearwater taxpayers $300,000 to buy back the property, and there will be an additional cost some day to demolish the building.
In Largo, the local chamber is leasing property adjacent to City Hall from the city for $1 a year. The chamber built its own building on the land, and its lease runs until 2012. But now the city plans to move its offices and sell City Hall. The chamber lease could complicate efforts to find a buyer.
To be sure, local governments can find ways to help chambers of commerce, just as they offer tax breaks and other incentives to attract developers and businesses. Seminole City Council members appear willing to make a substantial effort, from donating their own time for fund-raisers to contributing public money to do structural repairs if the old library is acquired.
So far, the chamber is still pushing for an expensive new home at public expense. Seminole City Council members need to remind themselves that they represent all residents, not just one group of businesses. That will make it much easier to stand firm and refuse to give the chamber a handout.