Just two years after taking the job, Flagler County Chamber of Commerce President Jorge Gutierrez announced his resignation in an email to chamber members this morning, saying it was time for him to seek new opportunities and for the chamber to find someone who can take the organization “to the next level.”
Gutierrez and Chamber Board Chairman Allen Goodman said the departure was not a surprise as Gutierrez had met with Allen and AdventHealth’s John Subers, an executive chamber board member, near the beginning of the year to let them know he’d likely resign by year’s end. He saw no reason to prolong the departure even though he doesn’t have a job lined up. But he said he has two options, or “opportunities,” one of which he may choose soon. He is helping the chamber through the transition until the end of the month.
Goodman, now the acting president, portrayed the parting as just a change in direction and downplayed financial and other issues despite stark evidence of financial strain, saying that “on an annual basis, we are looking to break even.” A task force was appointed to look for a replacement, with help from chambers of commerce in Volusia. Gutierrez, in Goodman’s summary view, “has done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
A five-paragraph release issued to to local media just after noon today announced the resignation in muted terms, with Goodman recognizing Gutierrez for an “outstanding job” but with no other direct quote from any executive board member, or any chamber board member, praising Gutierrez–and none from Gutierrez himself.
Background interviews with four board members familiar with the situation paint the picture of an organization that had been satisfied enough with Gutierrez as an able, cost-cutting bean counter (an “accountant,” in one of the board members’ words) but not as a visionary who could bring in new revenue. In other words, they say, he may have stopped the bleeding, with hardly any staffing left to cut, but not found ways to make money–a characterization Gutierrez disputed, saying the chamber’s marketing has not lagged. But he acknowledged that he had not been as visible. He did not “get out there more,” he said. “Unfortunately the challenges of the internal operation kept me from that.”
Two of the four members who spoke on background today, were baffled that the chamber as a private, membership driven organization, still had to rely so much on fund-raising and outside support. Goodman declined to speak about the chamber’s finances beyond his assertion that the organization was viable and poised to grow.
“We’re broke, the chamber doesn’t have any money, it’s a known thing,” one of the members interviewed said today, before amending the statement: “All the bills are being paid. We just don’t have any extra money.” But Gutierrez’s departure was not exactly a surprise.
His confidential meeting at the beginning of the year with Goodman and Subers aside, Gutierrez’s departure was rumored for months, the rumors only growing as the chamber struggled with severe financial difficulties that had Gutierrez offering to work part-time last month, and the chamber having trouble meeting its payroll: it owed him $7,000 and owed the vice-president $2,000, according to minutes of last month’s executive committee meeting obtained by FlaglerLive. (Gutierrez’s salary was in the $90,000 range.) At the time net income was $32,000 below budget, and the chamber was considered applying for a revolving loan from Intracoastal Bank.
In May, the chamber had a nearly $23,000 deficit between its accounts receivables and payables, with just $1,675 in the bank. It applied for a $50,000 loan through Interlace Financial Services. Updating the executive board on the chamber’s financial standing at that months’ executive board meeting, Catherine Evans said cash flow was “extremely low,” according to that meeting’s minutes, and “Payables will continue to deteriorate as we shift cash to pay the most critical bills. Expect some complaints.”
And there was this: “Chamber has used most of the Foundation money to support operations.” It’s not clear what Foundation Evans is referring to. The chamber is a for-profit business, but has a non-profit foundation arm. It is potentially troubling, for taxing and other purposes, when an organization subsidizes itself with non-profit foundation money.
Gutierrez in an interview this afternoon said he was “absolutely” willing to go part-time if that would have helped. “Sometimes in our business there’s up and down in the business, it’s cash-flow driven. We never really had to,” he said of cutting back hours, but “I was willing to do that.”
The situation got so dire that chamber officials met with County Administrator Jerry Cameron to explore ways the county could subsidize the chamber, especially through the county’s tourism office, which had been part of the chamber before the county took it over in 2015–a merger that hurt the chamber by taking staffing away from it and $22,000 a year in rent and precipitating its next crisis: it could no longer make the mortgage on the building it owned (The merger was the brainchild of then-Administrator Craig Coffey and tourism Director Matt Dunn, intended to give both freer rain over tourism dollars and policy. Dunn’s freer rein ended up gravely hurting the county: he’s under criminal investigation.)
The chamber even explored whether the county could provide salary supports.
Discussions are ongoing to find ways that the county could legally help the chamber, but direct subsidies are out of the question, Cameron said today. “We are trying to make sure TDC dollars are spent for their intended purposes, bringing tourists in,” he said of the Tourist Development Council, the county organization that operates on a budget paid through revenue from the tourism sales surtax. “There has been some discussions, I think there was at one point with regard to some salary support, but the serious discussion was how could we subsidize them for some of their events.”
A plan is in the works for the county’s tourism office to help the chamber at its Creekside Festival, the chamber’s principal fund-raiser, held at the county’s Princess Place Preserve. (The chamber quietly changed the price of admission this year: the entry fee was previously $10 per car. This year it’s $5 per person.) The county is considering discounting what it charges the chamber for use of the park, and finding other ways to subsidize the event with tourism dollars on the assumption that it brings in tourists. But the county will have to document the assumption through surveys. Going beyond that sort of subsidy “is not something my board is inclined to do, nor would I be inclined to direct,” Cameron said.
The county administrator recognizes the importance to the community of the chamber’s viability, but he said the organization was on “a path that was not sustainable” and needs to find someone who can raise revenue. “But getting control of the hemorrhage is the first thing to so.”
The chamber has been lurching through several crises since the Great Recession, losing membership, staff, assets and of course influence along the way as its constituency shrunk. In 2011 it lost its affiliation with Enterprise Flagler, what had been the public-private economic development partnership between government and private business. Enterprise Flagler was replaced by a fully government-centered economic development department. Then the chamber’s yellow pages business collapsed as the web was making yellow pages obsolete: the book was last issued in 2016 at a huge deficit. By then the chamber had lost the tourism office. That year it was forced to sell the 11,000 square foot building it had bought in 2005, losing the rental revenue it was generating from other tenants. The building sold for $1.85 million that October, 11 years after the chamber bought it for $146,000.
A staff photo outside the chamber near the end of 2012 showed 14 employees. Since then staffing has fallen to five (including the president), with membership eroding significantly.
“We have a thousand members and it has stayed level. That tells me we have a healthy environment in Flagler County even through tough times,” then-Chamber President Doug Baxter told the News-Journal at the end of 2009. But the economy was mending and hasn’t stopped mending since, while the chamber saw its membership drop to 675. (Gutierrez in his farewell email said “Membership is up 15% year over year, and retention has reached its highest level in a decade,” a claim that clearly clashes with the record. He said today that when he arrived he had to purge the rolls of 100 or more members that had been kept on the books but were no longer paying members, which had inflated previous tallies.)
The sale of the building only helped prolong the chamber’s reckoning, Cameron said. “I suspect this day has been forestalled for a long time, first by selling their building,” he said. “That of course allowed you to cannibalize your revenue, and of course you lost your revenue stream from that portion you rented.”
Gutierrez said overhead is now “a lot lower than it has been in the past,” putting the chamber in a better position. “It’s just a matter of time now before the tipping point takes place.”
Between the Creekside Festival, the chamber’s annual installation gala, its golf tournament, its well-attended Common Ground breakfasts and other emerging events like the born-again Potato Festival in Bunnell and a veterans appreciation event to come, among others, Goodman said the chamber is poised to improve its visibility and standing.
Meanwhile it’s up to Board Chairman-Elect Mark Langello, who’s in charge of the task force responsible for finding the next president, to find what will be the chamber’s fourth president in seven years after Doug Baxter, Rebecca DeLorenzo, and now Gutierrez.
Name (required) says
Anybody else find it absolutely hilarious that the chamber of commerce has no money? Wow! Kudos, folks. Top work!
CB from PC says
Palm Coast does not even have a “downtown”.
Sole proprietorships and minimal number of employees businesses, or chain stores.
Then you have a couple of “Corporate ” companies…and they may be in the Chamber, but their revenue comes from elsewhere.
This just is not a place to do business or be an employee.
If the organization doesn’t have enough income to support my salary and the salaries of the employees then I also would be looking to change careers for a company that can. That’s a no brainer!
“The building sold for $1.85 million that October, 11 years after the chamber bought it for $146,000.”
$ 1.7 million profit. Seems like a pretty good ROI…what happened to all that cash? And how can you not make the mortgage on a $146,000 loan.with all that rental income? Seems pretty cheap for that size building and location….is that a typo?
Trailer Bob says
Until recently I was a Chamber member. I have never met or even seen the Chamber President at any meetings or gatherings. I recently resigned because after being a board member of another Chamber of Commerce up north, I felt that much was missing and that there was little opportunity to actually get business recognition by being a member. My past experience as a Chamber member and officer was of vigorous action on the part of local businesses and workable marketing campaigns. I believe that there has to be more efforts put into actually getting members business and visibility…why else would one joint any Chamber of Commerce?
Jane Gentile-Youd says
I am not surprised t all. As a former member I was dismayed at the yearly rate I would have to pay as Real Estate Broker, as opposed to ‘Agent’ even though I am working on my own.
Then it was Jorge routing for Captains to get their new building in addition to their ‘non-member fees for events’. He even stood on line to plead with the commission to give them their new building so they could make million selling hard liquor ( giving the county nothing except potential huge liability in the event of any accidents of drunks on or off the water)
Doug Baxter tried to reach out . Guttierez did nada in my opinion and his $90,000 salary – for what? Good riddance .
Art A. Choke says
Chamber of Commerce is out of money……….. The USA is thriving in new job growth and our Chamber of Commerce is OUT of MONEY . Simply unbelievable !
As mentioned, quite ironic the entity in charge of helping and promoting other local entities is itself broke. Same path as the now defunct useless “Business Assistance Center”.
This town needs an enema.
In few words all these business members that pay more than $375/year (last I was asked to pay a year) and that was over 16 years ago. I wonder how much is the membership now just to be shown how selective chamber sponsorship was all about. No surprise membership is down…what else but pay high administrative unjustified high salaries with those businesses memberships funds? While being member since 1994 until 16 years ago that we stopped, never once we received a visit from chamber administrators asking like,” how is business doing and how can we improve it for you?” Never. Too busy politicking and barking at the wrong tree. So no surprise the current Flagler Chamber of Commerce status.
For worst now will be run by Goodman? Its time that some of our Flagler County Organizations and governments start hearing their members and taxpayers residents pleas for the services they pay and are not being rendered.
Unfortunately, Jorge wasn’t half the president of Rebecca or Doug.
Sounds like poor management. Never heard of a Chamber of Commerce running out of money, something sure sounds fishy. Where did 1.7 million profit go?????? And, now out of money????
Ky Ekinci says
The difficulties of “our” Chamber of Commerce have faced are not Flagler-County-business-landscape related issues. Chambers of Commerce ANYWHERE have been in an identity crisis in the past decade.
Unfortunately it is more difficult than ever for these types of organizations to find purpose and prove clear value to current and future members.
In fact, after 10 years of membership I’ve joined that group that has not renewed membership in Flagler Chamber. My company is Office Divvy. Frankly, the main reason we’ve previously maintained a membership was to “support the Chamber.” We could however, no longer answer the question, “what are we were supporting and why.”
When a “membership organization” shifts its focus more to self-preservation coupled with with financial concerns, it becomes ever more difficult to offer value to members.
The needs of entrepreneurs, small business owners, and professionals have changed. How and where people find and grow their networks have changed. How and where folks find learning and growth opportunities have changed. Traditional organizations in any field, as well as traditionally-wired companies anywhere are being challenged by those who are figuring out new ways to do things, and do those things better.
My company, Office Divvy being what it is, a “percolator” for entrepreneurship and business in Palm Coast and Flagler County, has not received any collaboration initiatives from this Chamber since the past leadership’s departure, even though we’re right here, in Palm Coast. And my company is the same company that has been providing certain outsourced operations to a Regional Chamber of Commerce in West Volusia with a proven track record, whereby we have tremendously contributed to that organization’s survival first, then growth.
So like any company or organization, those that think differently, those that face the brutal facts and make decisions accordingly, those who know how to ‘pivot’, those who find ways to increase cooperation and collaboration are more likely not only to survive but to thrive.
I’ve debated whether or not to post a comment on this Flagler Live article, because it could be construed as though we do not want to see the Chamber do well. On the contrary, we wish well to our Chamber of Commerce. We do want to see them succeed. What “success” is however has to be redefined. The success of a Chamber should not be measured by whether or not they are “profitable.” That would be the wrong focus and it would conflict with at least some of the members’ interests. Instead, re-seek, find and redefine the purpose and value, and stability on all fronts can and should follow.
Hind sight’s always 20/20 of course. https://flaglerlive.com/111430/gutierrez-chamber/
I always say to read between the lines on resumes. Multiple advanced degrees and certifications. Many “executive level” positions in just a 20 year career history between at least 7 corporations. Applies for and accepts a rinky dink little 90k Chamber job in a sparsely populated backwoods county in what should be the prime of his career.
Yeah, he’s obviously not very good at his work. Lots of education. Probably a professional talking head. Doesn’t actually -do- anything. Will certainly make for a great Florida Republican politician!
Lil Bird says
Having owned a business in Flagler/Palm Coast I watched for years the Chamber buying from (aka supporting) Panera & Starbucks for their corporate meetings vs the local sub shop or any of the Beaches or Bunnell coffee shops except to ask for raffle donations. Jorge entered my business once to hand out a packet & give a speech that for $350+/yr I could get my name on a dated website containing names of closed business & be eligible to buy add space in a book “available” for new homeowners. Oh and I could put my cards in their rack holder for anyone who stops in the fancy office. Never saw or heard from him or any of his 10+ staff again and my shop was 3miles away. No following email. No call. Notta. Now with limited membership & floating of cash. He shows he can’t manage a business himself. No surprise.
Barbara Revels says
The Chamber’s original building on the current site, ITT built. The is the number that might be seen on the property appraisers website. The Chamber paid out over a million to build the current building. I built it. Additionally they had expenses over the years with upkeep and alterations. The profit many are speaking of was not there after paying off a large mortgage.
Our local county, cities governments and community organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and other private corporations sustained by us like the hospitals etc. have the greatest example of outsourcing that kills the local small businesses and economy. They all start by outsourcing jobs the highest paid administrative jobs that we, the tax payers fund, are assigned thru head hunters ignoring and or denying the position to highly skilled local residents with even masters in business administrations graduated summa cum laude from prestigious Florida Universities with several years of employment experience that have to commute to Orlando or Jacksonville for a fair wage. But no, county and cities bring into these over $80,000 a year jobs some unknown john doe that do not even have half the credentials of our local professionals or often nepotism opens the door to those local high paid administrators positions regardless of lack of degrees/experience and that is why the gross mismanagement of our hard earned taxes and the lack of paid services rendered to the tax payers takes place. Also even worst is the outsourcing of the work contracted by the local government and or organizations like the chamber using taxes/membership fees goes on rampant outsource out of our county other than using the services of the local small businesses that sustain them government or chamber. Was tragically funny while being a member to only to receive calls from the chamber every year soliciting advertisement in a publication that “was produced out of the county” when local suppliers were available, same with the hospital. Meanwhile local volunteers that gather new members for them were not even appreciated. No surprise the outcome. Then is also tragically funny when speaking out of both sides of their mouth they spend more of our taxes on the “buy local campaign” after outsourcing left and right.
Concerned but not a chamber member says
I am not suprised now to see that the board of directors took chamber assets this weekend prior to the liquidation sale. I showed up at the beginning of the sale to be told that the art and other items I was interested in was taken by the executive board for private aquisition and or private sale. The liquidator was upset her commissions were cut, I was furious that the board would outright steal chamber property. Someone should investigate this….