What is happening with the Dade County Chamber of Commerce?
This summer, it moved into a smart new office space--right on the Trenton town square, next door to Robin Rogers' law office--and acquired a new director, Kat Fox. The central location made it easier for tourists to find than the chamber's old county-
owned site in the Trenton Depot building by the railroad tracks, which was handy because the chamber office doubles as Dade's welcome center, in state-tourism-speak called the "RVIC," for regional visitors' information center.
But at the Trenton City Commission's October meeting on Tuesday, Mayor Alex Case announced that the chamber board's brand-new president, Adam Austin of Trenton Telephone/TVN, who took over only this summer, has now stepped down, and in leaving had informed him that the chamber would no longer be running the welcome center.
The RVIC is financed through Trenton's hotel-motel tax, and Mayor Case said Tuesday the city had stopped that funding after it emerged that the chamber's articles of incorporation had been allowed to lapse. “We had to hold it until we knew if it was legal,” said Case.
But Adam Austin (right), reached by phone Thursday, said the visitor center has remained open. If it's a little hard to catch anybody actually staffing the office, he said, it's because Ms. Fox is busy cross-training at neighboring areas' visitor centers.
Austin said the chamber had paid to have its nonprofit corporation status renewed, and that any membership fees left in its treasury were meanwhile being held in trust, available for refund if members so requested.
Austin said he'd decided to step down because his other commitments didn't leave him the kind of time the chamber required. Austin had inherited the helm when Steven Ryan, the previous president, abruptly left the bridge, during a period that the city was calling out the chamber for so rarely having enough members to constitute a legal quorum at meetings.
"Everybody just kind of quit," said Austin.
But faithful chamber volunteer Kathleen Reed (left) of Citizens Bank and Trust has not quit, and she stressed that the chamber is still organizing Dade's annual Christmas parade, scheduled to take place Dec. 14. "The parade is absolutely going forward," she said by phone on Thursday.
The chamber, once a major player in Dade community life, represented at every city and county commission meeting, and which organized a spring banquet as well as Halloween, Christmas and other community events, is clearly undergoing a metamorphosis. "We're pretty much trying to rebuild the chamber from the ground up," said Ms. Fox, the new executive director, interviewed several weeks ago. Adam Austin had remarked similarly during the summer: "Starting now, the chamber is establishing a new direction."
What would that direction be? In that earlier talk--Austin was speaking at a luncheon this summer of the Greater Dade Business Owners Association (GDBOA)--he said when he was asked: “What is the Chamber going to do for you? My response would be, what do you want the chamber to do for you? You can’t do a job for somebody unless you know what they need done."
But Ms. Reed, asked if the chamber was basically in an "under construction" mode, said that wasn't a fair description. "That makes it sound like the chamber's dead," she said. "We're more than under construction. We've got a foundation."
Certainly if history is foundation, the C of C is working from a pretty solid base. This December's parade will be its 37th. But organizationally? City Commissioner Monda Wooten (right), who throughout 2018-19 has questioned Trenton's funding of what seemed a defunct chamber, has suggested that if Dade is to have a chamber, it should study successful chambers serving communities of roughly Dade's size.
And from a practical standpoint, the chamber's current structure does seem singularly unrewarding for its members. Businesses must pay a yearly membership fee based on their size, and then their busy owners or employees are expected to volunteer big chunks of their time toward organizing and running community events. What, precisely, are they getting out of it?
Adam Austin agreed it hadn't seemed a particularly fair arrangement. "Particularly when people keep saying the chamber doesn't do anything," he said. The chamber requires participation, he said. "There's no chamber without people in business participating," he said. "It's a symbiotic relationship."
Austin said another pitfall had been the county's lack of financial support. "You can't do anything without any money," he said. Dade County stopped contributing to the chamber when it began financing a full-time industrial development director, but Austin had earlier expressed hopes for funds from the county's new hotel-motel tax.
The Planet asked Dade County Clerk Don Townsend about that during the summer, when Townsend pointed out the obvious snag: “Really, we don’t have a hotel or motel," he said. "That’s the big thing."
Dade has a few rental cabins and some housing for the lineman college, but Townsend said it hadn't been the intent of Dade's ordinance to make college students pay accommodation tax. In any case, said Townsend, there had been a SNAFU in the order Dade passed its hotel-motel resolutions and it recently had to start over, so that the county hasn't yet even begun collecting the tax.
Furthermore, said Townsend, when the accommodation tax ordinance resolution was drafted, Airbnbs were still too new a development to register on the county's radar. Now Airbnbs seem to be where most tourists stay in Dade. "Probably now, that is really where we could collect some money,” he said.
Minus the hotel/motel tax, said Townsend, the C of C has its membership fees as a revenue stream. “Of course, somebody has to send out the dues notices to the members for them to pay it,” he said. He noted he hadn't seen a bill for the county's chamber of commerce membership fees for the past two years. He added that to receive money from the county, the chamber had to be in good standing with the IRS and like Mayor Case he referenced the chamber's problem with its corporate status. “Right now, I don’t think they’ve paid their corporate fees for the past three years," he said.
He also pointed out the problem with attendance. At a meeting Dade public relations clerk Carey Anderson had arranged with the chamber, he said: “Carey showed up and Adam showed up and nobody else showed up. You could hear crickets chirping."
But Townsend said the Dade Chamber of Commerce had gone through periods like this before and risen from the ashes somehow. And he said the county did value the chamber and wanted to support it. “If they approach the county, we’re not bears, we’ll do what we can," he said.
Monda Wooten said something similar at the city's Monday-night meeting. “We definitely need to support them but we need to have something to support.”
Going forward, then, the chamber's future seems to hinge on
(a) Who it will consist of--currently, Kathleen Reed seems to be it on the board side;
b) What it is meant to accomplish--is it a community service organization, meant to give out candy to children on Halloween, as it used to, or a members-benefit association, in which businesses who purchase membership will get something more for their money than demands on their time, and criticism when they don't give it; and
(c) How it will operate. Another criticism Commissioner Wooten has made of the chamber is how short and bitter the lifespan of a chamber director has become in recent years, as one employee tries to serve a board of bosses, not all of whom it is possible to please at once.
Adam Austin said he thought the focus of the chamber, if there is to continue to be one, would be tourism. Don Townsend, interviewed earlier, seemed to agree that the promotion of tourism was a function of the C of C: “It makes sense for the RVIC and
the chamber to be together because they complement each other,” he said.
How those tenets jibe with the chamber's divorce from the RVIC, who knows? And given that the chamber's sole employee, Kat Fox (right) is the one who mans (or "wo-mans") the RVIC, who is now her boss? And is she still the executive director of the C of C, of of the RVIC?
For that matter, who will run the RVIC if the chamber doesn't? The city and county had considered basing the center at the public library, but the library would have to agree and many details--what about staffing?--would require working out.
Time may answer those questions. For now, the only reasonable conclusion is that Dade's quasi-governmental institutions seem to be going through a period of unusual flux. The aforementioned GDBOA, which had in effect taken the chamber's place as
an association of business owners meeting for networking and support, has now seemed to cease existence as its founder, Nathan Wooten, focuses on his campaign for county executive in next year's election. (Wooten is, however, pressing forward plans for the annual Small Business Expo, GDBOA's big event of the year. That will happen Dec. 14, the same Saturday as the C of C's Christmas parade.)
Meanwhile, William Back, the sole employee of the Dade Industrial Development Authority (IDA), the reason for creation of which was to bring jobs to Dade, admitted at the Sept. 26 mega-meeting of all county governing boards: “Now we’ve got lots of jobs and not enough people to fill them."
In a handout Back prepared for that meeting, he described the chamber of commerce as a viable sister organization. "We have limited resources, so we work through nonprofit organizations--Chamber--for business development...Scenic Dade Development Co.--for tourism," said the handout."
Scenic Dade Development is or was Back's own group, which pops up once a year or less at city commission meetings and seems mostly interested in generating more attractive tourist signage. Given its intermittent or phantasmal being, the C of C's current faltering grasp on existence, and IDA's loss of its basic mission, perhaps the county might consider combining their functions? Dade does fund IDA, paying Back's salary with a little help from the Trenton city government, and Back was present at last week's county SPLOST (special purpose local option sales) to put in IDA's dibs for a share of the proceeds should voters reapprove the tax in 2020.
But if or how Dade's institutions will realign themselves is the merest speculation at this point. What seems certain for right now is that, for this year at least, there will still be a chamber of commerce Christmas parade.
(That's Dec. 14, folks, at 6 p.m., with a rain date of the next Thursday, the 19th.)