Update: The Chamber board this afternoon voted 17-2 to dissolve, but the decision must be ratified by the full chamber membership in accordance with chamber by-laws.
The Flagler County Chamber of Commerce had acquired the acreage on Airport Road in Palm Coast in December 2001, and it wanted to go big.
“As a chamber, we’re saying, ‘what do we need to do to satisfy our needs from the standpoint of five, 10, 15 years down the road?'” then-Chamber Executive Director Dick Morris told the News-Journal in a 2002 interview. The building was it, and the key, he said, would be finding new funding sources.
Barbara Revels, the builder, former county commissioner and long-time leader in the county’s economic development initiatives, the chamber of commerce among them–she’d joined in her early 20s, back in the 70s–recalls subsequently building the structure on Airport Road for the chamber.
“I think that that was the beginning of this chamber’s downfall, which was trying to grow into a much, much bigger building and struggling with the weight of that building,” Revels said today. “It’s so sad, it’s really sad. I guess home builders’ organizations and other groups that are made up by memberships have all in many places gone by the wayside when they’ve wanted to build big buildings and own big buildings.”
The Flagler County Chamber of Commerce board is meeting this afternoon to dissolve the 60-year-old organization as the coronavirus crisis tipped it into bankruptcy. The move follows several years of struggles, downsizing, and layoffs as recently as early February, before the crisis struck.
Weeks before those last layoffs, the chamber had hired Aimee Stafford as president, with high hopes of making the Flagler chamber the top chamber in the state.
“I have been told that the meeting that’ll take place [Thursday] is in regard to the process of bankruptcy for the chamber of commerce, and then the overall process of closure,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland, who had previously served on the board, representing the city, said.
“I’ve been very impressed with Aimee, and in my conversations with her, I believe they found a strong director. I believe it was a combination of years of struggles–this didn’t happen overnight–and finding what their role is in the community. It’s changed over the years. Was it driven more on events, or was it driven more on festivals, or as it ribbon-cuttings: I think it was the loss of focus.”
A board member who asked not to be identified, and who’s taken part in the recent meetings, said that “they tell us they’re closing, that’s what they tell us in meetings. But when you talk to people individually, they tell us they’re going to open again, but we don’t know if it’s true or not.” The board member said the board wasn’t given other options. “They’re selling everything off to pay bills, to pay chamber members we owe and to pay off debts, that’s why they’re selling everything.” Various organizations have been asking for money owed them, and at times disputing figures the chamber is providing.
For example, the chamber told the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce Professional Women’s Council that the chamber owed it $1,900. “However, this figure is incorrect,” the council’s Danielle Silva wrote the board Wednesday evening in an email. “Indeed, PWC is owed $7,628.56 as this figure includes outstanding sums from the years: 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020.” The council is also asking that the chamber board approve its retention of the Professional Women’s Council name and associated intellectual and intangible property rights, according to Silva’s email.
The chamber’s executive board members were reluctant to discuss the matter publicly, as they told board members at their last meeting–according to the board member. It was only on Tuesday that Stafford issued an email acknowledging the chamber’s “moving sale” and what she described as a temporary suspension of activities–a technical term political candidates typically use when they effectively end their campaign, but must still keep it officially open to close out financial accounts.
Stafford could not be reached directly in the last two days, but in a phone message, she said the board voted in February “to move, sell the furnishings we no longer need and negotiate with the landlord which we’re doing currently. And I had to make some staff changes which I did in early February. But now the Covid-19 crisis has put an entire other layer of financial worry on the chamber’s budget. So the board is considering some options for the chamber” today.
“We did advertise the moving sale because we are selling off the furnishings we no longer need,” Stafford said. “We had a lot of furniture in that building for a lot of staff members who no longer exist.”
On April 25 Diana Minotti, who owns a local estate appraisal and liquidation business, posted a five-minute video of a “virtual open house” advertising the everything-must-go fire sale at the chamber. “We’re doing a business liquidations sale,” Minotti says, standing in a bare office. “So here we have it. This is a beautiful executive desk set, we have here the bookcase with cabinet, the desk, and a desk with a hutch, or credenza. There are side chairs as well as computer desk chairs.” Minotti then gives a tour of the empty chamber’s offices, conference rooms, some of the office space showing the chamber has been packed up for quite a while: no personnel, a few archive boxes stacked against the wall, nothing in the bookcases, nothing on the desks, the kitchen’s cupboards all empty. The landlord is purchasing the larger conference room table and chairs, Minotti said, but other supplies were available.
The chamber attempted to get county government subsidies for some of its events but the county was leery of providing a private organization more than incidental support through partnerships with the Tourist Development Council, whose offices had until five years ago been part of the chamber. (The county took over the tourism office.)
There have been discussions about possibly selling the Creekside Festival–the two-day music and crafts festival at Princess Place Preserve and the chamber’s largest annual fund-raiser–to Flagler Broadcasting, but the radio station’s David Ayres said that’s just been discussions, nothing more. The chamber was also hoping to sell its Fantastic Flagler guide.
The chamber had also previously relied on its phone book, an operation decimated by the rise of web directories. It was last published in 2016 at a loss. The chamber subsequently put emphasis on membership, though those numbers, which peaked above 1,000 before the Great Recession, were down in the 600 range before Stafford took over from Jorge Gutierrez.
Stafford–who had not updated her LinkedIn profile to include her current role at the chamber–is leaving the door open for “future Chamber operations.”
Describing the loss as significant, Holland said she’s not been privy to future planning for the chamber. “We rely on the chamber of commerce not only in our community, but throughout the country, to not only have a voice of the business community, but to help businesses succeed.”
The dissolution is a sign of the times, Revels said, “just like all of us who want to read print newspapers. How much longer are we going to read print newspapers? I don’t know.” The chamber had tried hard to tailor its expertise to each community’s needs–Bunnell, Flagler Beach, Palm Coast, the Hammock.“It’s surprising that that model didn’t work or didn’t stay strong, and of course I personally think they might have made some different hiring choices over the last few years, but that’s neither here nor there.”
Revels sees some form of organization re-emerging in one form or another. “Maybe something will come back out of it that will may be smaller and less costly to operate–I hope so,” she said, citing for example the chamber’s younger groups, like the Young Professionals, who already do everything online and through social media. “They’ll probably teach us old folks how to do it,” Revels said.
Is the Flagler Beach CoC part of this debacle?
Larry phelan says
This is what happens when there isn’t one town! I laugh when I hear people who live west of 95 have never been over the Hammock bridge and people east of 95 use the small post office at the Shell station.
No intermingling, no ice cream stands, no decent bakeries or delis, the Town Center is condo city, and we could use a Costco and a new Walmart! How about the loss on the Sears purchase, now the CofC, and also the Library property? Instead of Splash Parks, hunker down!!
“Splash Parks” are a waste of resources, there is no environmental or economic benefit to build a park that has man made water attractions that are supported by increased taxation. Those will fall into disrepair, require more money which nobody has to repair or maintain from the tax increases, the children outgrow their interest in even using them for a summer. The homeless most likely end up using those as bathing facilities. Whoever hatched that idea up, most likely has the children today, that are of age that any use would ever benefit. The paved trails are as far into investment as any park should really be invested in. Many of those paved trails are now falling into disrepair, potholes and whatever else as the trees & nature grow back to reclaim the land. As it is, those trails are underutilized. It’s FL, it’s either too hot to use them for transportation, there is nothing built in the area to economically support that infrastructure. The population is aging to a point where the exercise is early AM or late PM at best. I’d seriously want to know who actually uses the benches from ends to the centers of Lehigh Trail. I know I’ve stopped a time or two, but reality is, I’m there to go end to end and never even use or need a sitting bench. And to leave the Lehigh Trail before Colbert, there’s a wooden walkway & bridge that is now starting to fall apart. That may be pretty to look at, it’s the long way to Colbert as the crow flies, waste of money. like building another pier in the woods.
I think you underestimate the number of us old folks who ride Lehigh. But I agree on the wooden bridge and “water-park”.
Maria Darcy says
I have enjoyed your comments, insightful. I think a citizens task force is needed to look at city budgets, line by line, to determine how we have spent money in the past and what investments are needed in the future.
PAUL HARRINGTON says
Aimee Stafford brought great ideas to a group run by dinosaurs. Until we have a new leadership that adopts a Comprehensive Plan that provides the framework for business and community to flourish together we are doomed to the same failures that have repeated over and over.
Long timer says
I was a member since 1989 and enjoyed my membership up until the last 5 years, I canceled my membership 2 years ago because I was getting nothing for my money I have watched as the leadership of the chamber spiral down hill and end where we are today
A county of 115,000 people with many great businesses (both large and small) and we can’t even have a chamber??? Like the article states, this goes way back to previous leadership and board of directors, who hired the bums to run the chamber. Unfortunately, readers won’t realize that. Aimee, in the short time she’s been here, has been great to work with and had wonderful ideas. Her track record states she would have got this mess turned around. Too bad we won’t find out.
Well so much for bringing in New Business to this County.
This whole Pandemic of a Fire Drill was nothing more than a cover up for a recession. Governments are going bankrupt, State Unemployment unable to pay out unemployment claims, it’s bankrupt. And now DeSantis & the rest of the rats at State & Federal level that are the self proclaimed “Essentials” are reopening, all scrambling to cover up these poor decisions across the board. They turned the lights off and expect the lights to come back on with the turn of a switch. You wonder what happens to those that haven’t retired from this, are they getting their pensions ? Who still going to get that pension ? And when the one’s they sent to their rooms for the timeout come out of the quarantine, there aren’t going to be employers or jobs. Everyone got rebooted. Only the solvent institutions that didn’t fail are going after the traditional wealth transfer of taking everything they can and giving nothing in return for it. The incompetence is astonishing. And it’s already being spun as open in phases that will take at least a year to that plan. What did we all learn in this ? That like a global hurricane, there world is overpopulated, there is nowhere to run from nuclear war or global virus pandemic that is a “real” wipeout of the human race. Something we always knew. Didn’t need to shut down the economy, pretty much anywhere. I think the 60K deaths, the bulk of them in places where fraud & abuse are always the bigger threat to survival.. NYC/NY, imagine those people/that place being the epicenter of corruption in all of this ?
The Chamber was just one more click organization in this county who’s most click overpaid VIP’s never bother to pay a visit to their members and ask; “how is all doing and how can we help” except for the first time recruiting. We were members but left a long time ago about the time that DeLorenzo was its President and the clicks and cliche’s increased with her predecessor from Aussie Land, while the obliviousness of the dwindling members was more obvious exacerbated by the superiority attitude of the Chamber VIP’s towards the small business owners operating in town for decades. Never a thank you or recognition for all the new members, that some of us many years members, recruited for the Chamber in the years since Morris and Henderson were in the Chamber and the membership was close to fourteen hundreds.
Also the Chamber was always too much politically involved and I do not believe that that is what we paid a membership for but instead to help us promote and support our businesses, something that didn’t happen.
Their problems started with the new building cost and Revels should have known better. Too big presumptuous building for over 1,000 membership sustain by then and few events in town and also too numerous overpaid staff. Same as county, city and mosquito control, Chamber no exception build a castle to itself and when bankrupt. Meanwhile the service to dwindling members was a no show. Chamber’s should not be about clicks, cliche’s or so much politics or Who the heck is Who, but about caring for its members success and smiling, cordial, sincere receptions and recognition from the VIP’s that the very membership sustains or otherwise… we just cancelled.
Linda H. says
Maybe it’s time to look at merging with another county. Our chamber always appeared more concerned with local politics and controlling that than they were with helping local businesses. That never made any sense to most.
It will be a shame to lose Amy. She could likely run this Chamber all by herself with volunteers and it would be in better shape.