CLEARWATER — For 20 years Clearwater has been a city with not one but two chambers of commerce that separated the business worlds on Clearwater Beach and the mainland.
After years of floating the idea of merging, the Clearwater Regional and the Clearwater Beach chambers of commerce announced on Thursday they were beginning the legwork to unify as one organization by 2020.
Clearwater Regional Chamber CEO Carol Hague said a recent change in leadership at the Beach Chamber and more serious discussions between the two boards made now the right time fix what has been a longtime duplication of services.
It also makes Clearwater the first to make a move in addressing the abundance of organizations working toward the same goals in independent groups. In a county with 24 cities, there are 14 chambers of commerce.
“The community has always said gee, why do we have two chambers in Clearwater and actually, to go a step further, why do we have 14 chambers in Pinellas County?" said Hague, who has led the organization for four years. "That's too many … Consolidation is good for everyone and we're really hoping to be the first" of more changes.
Hague said the merger will serve members with more efficiency. Clearwater businesses will not have to pay for two memberships, advertisers will work with one agency in the same city and residents and visitors can look to one place for all things business.
Hague said there are no current plans to cut any of the Regional Chamber's seven full-time staff or the Beach Chamber's five staff. A CEO of the unified group has not been named but neither Hague nor Beach Chamber President Amanda Payne said they have plans to leave.
“We think it's a very exciting way to bring two industries, business and tourism, bring those two together and have them work as a unit and benefit from the strengths of each and be a larger body and a stronger voice,” Hague said.
Payne took the reins of the Beach Chamber in January following the retirement of Darlene Kole, who led the group since 2010.
She said many of the Beach Chamber's 250 businesses are also part of the Regional Chamber, which has more than 600 members.
The Regional Chamber was established 97 years ago. The Beach Chamber was formed in 1995, a time when Clearwater Beach was a quieter island without the international resorts and hotels lining the shores today.
With the rise of Clearwater Beach becoming an international destination, she said now is the time to merge with the broader business community.
"We see it as imperative to retain the two cultures, but also part of our goal is to bring two organizations into one much more unified larger voice that speaks collectively as a whole rather than the division that's existed the last several years," Payne said.
Robin Miller, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, one of the county's larger business groups with its 720 members, has been a longtime advocate for consolidating chambers within the county.
She said duplication makes businesses have to pay membership fees to multiple organizations for the same services. Because of costs, others have to choose to stay out of some groups.
And if a chamber's mission is to advocate for business interests and help connect sellers to consumers, it would be more efficient to do so on a larger, shared scale, she said.
Miller said Clearwater's announcement sets a precedent for the rest of the county, one she said she hopes is copied.
"Instead of having silos of membership organizations working on the same goal in different places and times, we could all come together and hopefully achieve more," Miller said.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.