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Tampa Bay chambers feel the COVID-19 sting, along with their members

Chamber of commerce dues are a low priority for businesses hurting during the pandemic. One local chamber laid off its new president.

As businesses across Tampa Bay struggle, the chambers of commerce that support them are also feeling the economic blow from the COVID-19 crisis.

Unable to seek federal or state relief because of their tax status, many of the not-for-profit organizations are hurting financially as membership dwindles and fundraising events are put on hold.

This week, the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce, with a membership roster of over 550 companies including the Tampa Bay Times, laid off its president. Diana Simmons had been hired weeks before the crisis began.

“Lots of companies in the area have had to make tough decisions, and we had to make decisions to make sure we can still be here to serve the businesses,” said Bernadette Pello, chairman of the Brandon chamber’s board. “None of us could foresee this crisis.”

A new president likely won’t hired for months, she said.

Chris Steinocher, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, said his organization took a financial hit, too, reducing staff hours and pay by 20 percent and tapping into cash reserves.

The St. Petersburg chamber has about 1,260 members, he said, adding that he worries for smaller chambers. Many businesses have yet to pay their renewals, but Steinocher said the chamber is not dropping members in hopes they will pay when they can.

“We’re going to lose quite a bit of revenue this year because a lot of our members don’t know what the future holds, and paying chamber dues is not at the top of people’s list,” he said. “We’ve had great people say, ‘We can’t pay you right now,’ and we know that. We know they have no customers. We’re empathetic because we’re living it with them.”

Kelly Flannery, president and CEO of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce, said the group will allow its members to adjust their payment schedules and won’t be suspending any accounts.

“We know the value we have provided to our members throughout this season," she said. "We are confident that most of our members will continue to partner with the chamber this year and in the future by making a membership investment when they are able.”

Despite the challenges, chambers are still connecting members with virtual services and other resources to navigate the crisis, said Hope Kennedy, president and CEO of the North Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which has about 700 members.

Those services include helping businesses sort through applications for paycheck protection and economic impact disaster loans. The Greater Brandon Chamber has hosted “Zoominars” for its members.

“We’re having to reimagine how we work as an organization,” Kennedy said.

Eighteen local chambers are part of a memorandum of understanding, she said, working together to support each other so they can support local businesses.

Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, which has more than 1,400 members, said one of the silver linings of switching to Zoom meetings is seeing a higher level of participation from members. The chamber extended a 90-day grace period for membership renewal.

Rohrlack said the group has been communicating with chambers around the world to share experiences on navigating the crisis.

“What’s different now from the 2008 recession was that was growing, growing, growing and then it hit," he said. “This struck like lightning.”

Rohrlack expressed frustration with what he described as a lack of support for chambers.

“They talk about wanting to support small businesses,” he said. "We’re all determined to continue to provide that connectivity and resources for our members.”

Steinocher said he hopes people will support member businesses so they can pay their dues.

Chambers operate as 501 C (6) organizations under the federal tax code, as opposed to most nonprofits, which are 501 C (3) groups. The designation often causes confusion about a chamber’s role, Steinocher said.

“We don’t get paid by the city or work for the city,” he said. “We’re caught in the middle of a political battle, where chambers are seen as advocates for big businesses, but that’s hopefully an old paradigm."

Flannery said she hopes chambers gain more recognition for the work they do.

“We are on the front line of the economic side of the crisis," she said, "and yet we are not eligible for the very programs we advocated for.”