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Don't let cash crisis undo alliance

If crisis is an alias for opportunity, the Community Alliance, St. Petersburg city officials and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce now face a moment full of possibilities.

In December, the chamber looked around for ways to trim its budget and decided to end its financial support for the biracial Community Alliance. Alliance members asked the city for cash and initially received support from Mayor David Fischer, a former member. But they later withdrew the funding request, balking at the idea of setting aside slots for people of other ethnicities in the group's voting body since supporting committees are open to all city residents. We believe the alliance is wrong on this point. The time has come to include Asian-Americans, Latinos and other minorities that reflect the growing diversity of this community.

The alliance, a group made up of 21 blacks and 21 whites, has met monthly since 1968 to discuss black/white relations in St. Petersburg. Members serve up to two two-year terms and represent some of the largest business and political interests in the city, among them Florida Power Corp., Bank of America and this newspaper.

The chamber has historically given the Alliance $20,000 for administrative support, a modest price to pay for a group willing to tackle an issue as thorny and intransigent as race relations for more than 30 years. Though the larger chamber's budget constraints may be real, it has sent the message that alliance funding ranks low on its list of priorities, even though its business recruitment efforts have touted the Community Alliance as an indicator of racial harmony in St. Petersburg. Likewise, the city counts the alliance as a community asset in its literature.

Everyone has a stake in keeping the Community Alliance as a force for better race relations _ the chamber, the city and individual citizens. Business and civic leaders alike stand to gain from the alliance's work. Those groups also could help alliance volunteers seek out grant funding, a process that could sharpen the group's focus and refine its mission.

The current financial crisis offers an opportunity for the Community Alliance to reassess its mission and discuss adding fresh voices to the dialogue on race relations. The alliance is too important to this community to wither and disappear or to be beholden to a single benefactor. The money is small; the cause is large. With a broad base of support and renewed vigor, the alliance can continue to benefit this city for years to come.