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Echo Chambers

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  • | 6:20 a.m. June 1, 2012
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Can there be too many chambers of commerce in one county?

At last count, Lee County is home to 15 chambers of commerce, more than any other county on the Gulf Coast from Pasco to Collier. And there's one more in the works: the Matlacha Chamber of Commerce.

“Wherever two or three people gather, you get free orange juice and a chamber of commerce,” chuckles Steve Tirey, the former president and CEO of the Chamber of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers. An informal survey by the Business Review found at least 56 chambers of commerce on the Gulf Coast from Pasco to Collier, not counting local economic development organizations or industry trade groups.

Matlacha (pronounced matt-luh-shay) is a really small place. The tiny village of 700 residents is cramped onto a spit of land that measures 0.2 square miles, but it's developed into a tourist destination in Lee County with its art galleries and seafood, despite its remote location.

Now, some business owners say Matlacha is big enough to have its own chamber of commerce, an organization they hope will give them political clout. Leoma Lovegrove, a well-known artist and marketing whiz, is leading the effort.

“We want the county to come in and build a parking lot for Matlacha,” Lovegrove says. “If we could accommodate 40 cars, that would be great.”

The chamber could also be a vehicle for other government-related projects, such as persuading the federal postal authorities to grant it a zip code of its own. “We found communities that had 10 people with their own zip codes,” says Donna Loibl, who owns a real estate business on Matlacha and is one of the people behind the effort to create a new chamber. She's upset that many businesses are listed in nearby Cape Coral, which shares a zip code with Matlacha.

But besides the challenge of starting a chamber in such a small community, many of the business owners in Matlacha already belong to the Greater Pine Island Chamber of Commerce, which encompasses other island communities west of Cape Coral. “It appears to be a little redundant,” says Bill Stoelker, an owner of the Angler's Inn on Matlacha and a board member of the 300-member Pine Island chamber. “The businesses of Matlacha would have more clout with the Pine Island chamber.”

In a strange twist, an arsonist set fire to the Pine Island chamber building in January. No one has attributed the fires to inter-business rivalry and the chamber building wasn't the only business that was torched. The state fire marshal is investigating four other suspicious fires in the area since January 2011, though some business owners say have been more than two dozen such incidents.

Hyper-local chambers are part of the history of Lee County's business scene, and they've clashed before. “There was an effort years ago to unite all the chambers,” says Marietta Mudgett, the retired executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. “It didn't work because the people of various communities are so different that it would be impossible for one organization to serve them equally. Every one of them wants to be heard.”

Tirey says a large number of chambers of commerce are a reflection of the business vitality of the area. “Thriving business organizations are a barometer of economic health,” he says. The traditional “one-county, one-chamber” model in most other areas of the country doesn't apply to coastal communities of South Florida because of population growth and diversity of businesses. “There is something unique about Florida coastal communities,” he says.

Another hurdle for new-chamber formation is that state legislators passed a law recently that forbids any for-profit group from using “chamber of commerce” in its name. Although most chamber members are driven by profits in their own businesses, this peculiar law says that an organization seeking to become a chamber of commerce must be formed as a not-for-profit entity or the organizers could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor.

Growing pains
Starting a chamber of commerce in Matlacha presents an unusual business challenge, not the least of which is the small size of the community. But it's a reflection of the growing pains that many communities face as businesses flourish and new residents move in.

Some businesses are worried that forming a new chamber of commerce will open old wounds from a previous economic development effort in the early 1990s, a replay of the familiar skirmishes all along the Gulf Coast between those who oppose growth and those who favor it. That failed because residents feared their taxes would increase and it pitted them against business owners. One business owner who declined to be named declared the episode a nightmare.

“The same situation could easily happen again,” says Mike Shevlin, a broker with Century 21 Sunbelt in Matlacha. “These things need to be worked out a little bit. If it creates World War III, then that's not fun.”

Matlacha has a civic association, but it doesn't tackle business issues because of the debacle more than 20 years ago, says Stoelker, who also serves as president of the civic association. The civic association might debate a new boatlift or allowing dogs in the park, not whether the town needs a parking lot, he says.

Residents and business owners in Matlacha are a fiercely independent bunch, likely owing to the fact that the place is hard to reach. Commercial fishing was Matlacha's main industry until the last decade, when artists started to arrive, drawn by its remoteness and wild beauty.

Matlacha connects Cape Coral with Pine Island, and residents of the tiny island view Cape Coral with deep suspicion. That's because there are lingering rumors that debt-laden Cape Coral plans to annex Matlacha in a quest for additional tax revenues. Recently, Cape Coral acquired land in Matlacha as part of a foreclosure case, rekindling fears among residents. A chamber would give business owners there a chance to defend against that encroachment, proponents say.

Lovegrove says the Matlacha Chamber of Commerce would be a small affair. There's no need for a staff or building and mobile information kiosks would do. But Lovegrove says the chamber would make a big push with social media, promoting the island widely on the Internet. Membership would cost as little as $35 a year.

The Matlacha chamber would make a bigger push for tourists than the Pine Island Chamber, says Lovegrove, who plans to open a four-bed lodge next to her gallery. “We have over 50 rooms in Matlacha,” she says.

“This would give them an ability to work as a group to identify projects and band together, which they haven't done to date,” says Gloria Sajgo, principal planner with the Lee County Historic Preservation Program. The county designated Matlacha as a historic place, which prevents business owners and residents from altering the historic character of the area but gives them a chance to obtain county grants for preservation purposes.

Still, officials with the Greater Pine Island Chamber of Commerce aren't keen on seeing another chamber competing for members. That's especially so because they plan to build a new facility on Matlacha to replace the one that burned in January. “The majority of our businesses are in Matlacha. That's the base of our membership,” says John Paeno, president of the Pine Island Chamber. “Matlacha is very well represented in our chamber.”

Chamber multiplication
Multiple chambers of commerce in one county are peculiar to coastal counties on both coasts of Florida. Most counties in the U.S. have one chamber, says Steve Tirey, who spent more than three decades in economic development in Florida and the Midwest.

Diverse businesses, fast growth and geography all play a part in why coastal counties like Lee have so many chambers of commerce. “If you found a competitive advantage and it sustained you for growth, you were thinking about competition, not cooperation,” says Tirey.

In Lee County, inland communities have different needs than coastal towns. “The needs of the business community in the Pine Island area are totally different than downtown Fort Myers or Cape Coral or Bonita Springs,” says Marietta Mudgett, the retired executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce.

Tirey jokes that all you need to form a chamber of commerce in Southwest Florida are a Realtor, a banker, a title company, free maps and orange juice. Because Florida is a melting pot of people who were raised in other areas, the old “one-chamber” rule doesn't apply. “Everyone came south with their own recipe for a nuclear bomb,” he chuckles.

Chambers of commerce have traditionally been civic organizations, but some groups were formed as for-profit entities. Under threat, non-profit chambers persuaded Florida legislators to pass a law a few years ago that makes it illegal to use the term “chamber of commerce” for profit.

But neither legislation nor other geographic or economic barriers are likely to stem the tide of new-chamber formation. “My prediction is we'll see more chambers, not fewer,” Tirey says.


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