It’s almost official. Months of intense negotiations have concluded with an agreement to combine the Gulfport area’s two business organizations into one to be known as the Gulfport Merchants Chamber.
The long-awaited merger between the Gulfport Merchants Association (GMA) and the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce will be finalized July 1 with the finessing of details and the signing of the final legal documents, three of the major players said in a joint interview Monday, June 18. They included Barbara Banno, president of the new organization, Scott Linde, vice president, and Barry Rubin, chair of the commerce committee.
“July 1 is our launch day!” said Rubin, head of the Chamber of Commerce.
The Merchants Chamber will be housed at the Gulfport Welcome Center, where the two groups have operated side-by side for over two years. It will continue hosting all the popular events Gulfport is known for – the Gecko crawl and ball, Get Rescued, the Tuesday Fresh Market, the art walks, and more – and doing the same work each group has been doing separately all along.
In one major change, the merged group will be open to businesses in and outside of Gulfport but will limit its active recruiting efforts to those within Gulfport, said Linde, who headed the GMA. In the past the Chamber of Commerce focused on all of Gulfport, South Pasadena and some surrounding communities, while the GMA focused on the Gulfport Waterfront Redevelopment District.
The board of the new group has been whittled down to 11 members from the combined total of 20 in the former organizations. The old entities’ 240 members automatically become members of the new one.
For the time being, each of the old groups will continue to operate its own website; the two will be merged within a year. Annual dues will be somewhere between $125 and $150.
One new initiative has already been added to the Merchants Chamber’s repertoire: the Gulfport Gecko Band, which will play at events throughout the area, the three said.
Although the Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce have often collaborated over the years, they’ve also duplicated efforts and expenses. Many businesses belonged to both groups, which doubled their membership fees. The merger will eliminate all those redundancies and allow money and personnel to be used more effectively.
For the past six months seven officers from the two original groups have been hammering out the details – including combining bylaws and boards of directors – with the help of a mediator. The goal was to keep the best of both organizations and create a stronger entity to serve the needs of its members and of the community, the three said.
“There were no fights, nobody walked out,” Linde said of the process. “It was a healthy debate.”
“What’s hard in business is that you have to take the emotion out of it,” said Banno, who served as vice president of both of the original bodies. Always, she said, the discussion boiled down to “what’s best for Gulfport.”
Rubin and Linde said the merger turned out easier than expected. Although members of each group had questions, there appeared to be no opposition.
“Our similarities so outweighed our differences that we were able to compromise surprisingly easily,” said Rubin, who in his new position will continue to liaise with other business groups and government agencies outside of Gulfport.
“The most exciting thing is how much it will benefit our members and the community,” added Banno. “It’s going to offer so much more than we were already giving.”
Still, Linde said, the new board is aware that everyone will be watching it closely.
“We’re going to be on trial,” he said. “We’re going to have to prove ourselves and we’re all committed to doing that.”
The members of the board of the new Gulfport Merchants Chamber are:
Barbara Banno (president)
John Haugen (secretary)
Scott Linde (vice president)
Vanessa Long (treasurer)
Anyone interested in joining the new group can contact membership chair Kelly Wright at email@example.com