Pensacola, Florida
Friday December 15th 2017

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Reinventing the Chamber

By Duwayne Escobedo

When it comes to the Greater Pensacola Chamber, community leaders believed smaller would be better.

Instead of a chamber focused on developing tourism and economic development for the entire Northwest Florida region, it now focuses on supporting small Pensacola businesses, ensuring its largest economic engine—the military—remains robust, and promoting the local quality of life.

Chamber President and CEO Clay Ingram said the new office space in the Palafox Pier building is symbolic of the organization’s transformation. It moved from an old building next to the Blount building on Garden Street that was riddled with leaks, mold and other costly problems.

“Our old space was not conducive to our growing membership organization,” Ingram said at a recent open house. “This is a show piece where our business can come and be proud of as the chamber’s home. This new space is a real breath of fresh air.”

The chamber, which reports having 1,300 partners, is emerging from one of its most tumultuous times in its 128-year history.

2013 Turmoil
First, it fired the chamber’s chief financial officer, Brian McBroom, when a March 2013 investigation discovered the possible mishandling of tens of thousands of dollars of American Express Gift Cards, which were granted by BP in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Chamber leaders then decided against renewing the contract of its president and CEO John Hizer, who sued the organization. Hizer had successfully managed the chamber’s Vision 2015 fundraising effort, raising $8.8 million, which was $2.6 million more than the original goal.

State Attorney Bill Eddins ruled the chamber had to conduct open meetings to comply with the Florida Sunshine Laws because of the substantial taxpayer funding it received.

Finally, the Pensacola Chamber spun off Visit Pensacola, which had served as the chamber’s tourism arm, in January 2014. It also created FloridaWest as a separate agency responsible for attracting large industrial and commercial companies.

One of the chief architects of scaling down the chamber was then interim president and CEO Jerry Maygarden, a former Pensacola mayor and state House rep.

“For a long time, I felt Pensacola proper didn’t have a chamber. That’s changing,” Maygarden said. “The small business environment needs an active advocate. The chamber can do that and do that very well.”

When it comes to economic development today, the chamber helps small businesses with health care, workers’ compensation, product marketing questions, red tape and other issues. The Small Business Development Center shares office space at the chamber’s new downtown location.

Chamber 2.0
Todd Thomson, vice president of public affairs, said the chamber has gotten used to its new role.

“We’ve had a little time to get our legs under us,” he said. “This grand opening kind of celebrates our new beginning.”

Also, the key to the new chamber is the military, which has the largest economic impact on Pensacola at $7.2 billion and supports more than 63,000 jobs. The chamber offers many services to local military installations and military families.

“The national defense reauthorization bill doesn’t have a BRAC [Base Realignment and Closure], which is a huge relief,” Ingram said.

He added: “I feel like we are a completely different organization than we were three years ago. Our biggest challenge was to find our lane after the breakup. Now, we’re figuring out how to be successful in that lane.”

Chamber members also enjoy several networking opportunities, such as the monthly Gopher Club and Business After Hours events. Plus, it runs the annual Leadership Pensacola program to help develop community-minded leaders over a 10-month period.

The Pensacola chamber has plenty of support from other local organizations that fulfill the economic development component that used to be one of its departments. Groups such as FloridaWest, CareerSource EscaRosa, Pensacola State College and others are involved, as well as a newly formed, private-sector group called First Place Partners.

First Place Partners, which includes more than 30 local businesses, plans to focus on both Escambia and Santa Rosa counties and is entirely run on private funding. It has worked since October to get private companies more involved in economic development and help the new organization supplement what FloridaWest and the Santa Rosa County Economic Development Office.

First Place Partners plans among other things to put together a comprehensive list of sites and buildings that new businesses can use. It will also offer a Quick Strike team made up of business leaders who can talk to prospective companies about what doing business is like in Escambia or Santa Rosa counties.

John Hutchinson, who is involved with the new economic development group, pointed out Escambia County lacks certified sites, which in part allowed neighboring Baldwin County to land Walmart and Amazon distribution centers because it had sites ready for the companies to move into.

“We all see a void out there,” Hutchinson said. “No one is actively involved in economic development in a two-county way. This is not to replace FloridaWest or Santa Rosa’s department but to supplement and support what they are doing.”

Meanwhile, Ingram said the Pensacola Chamber is working on rolling out a new strategic plan with goals for serving its members and enhancing the community.

Carroll Scarborough, chamber board chairman and Pen Air Federal Credit Union official, said: “There are lots of ways we can enhance the community for businesses and individuals. I’m hoping we will get ourselves focused and do as much as we can for our community.”