The Gulfport area’s two primary business organizations – the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce and the Gulfport Merchants Association – plan to merge sometime next year in order to increase efficiency, cut costs, avoid duplication of efforts, and provide better services to their members and the community, say group leaders.
Scott Linde, president of the Gulfport Merchants Association, and Barry Rubin, president of the Gulfport Area Chamber of Commerce, said Monday, December 11 that the groups are in the process of coming to an agreement with the help of a neutral professional business mediator who recently moved to Gulfport.
Plans are still in the preliminary stages, but both groups are committed to going ahead, they said.
“We’ve agreed to agree and we’ve started talks,” Linde said. “We’re in the process of trying to make that happen … in a logical way.”
“It’s a slow process, but it’s a process and we’re moving forward,” said Rubin.
Two formal meetings have taken place so far, with only one including the mediator. Another meeting with the mediator was set for Wednesday, December 13, after the Gabber went to press.
While there have long been rumors of a possible merger, the move toward making it reality was triggered by the success the two groups have had managing Gulfport’s two-year-old Welcome Center on Beach Boulevard and using it as their joint office. They also have worked together to promote the Gulfport Fine Arts Festival, held in February for the second time.
“We said, ‘We’re doing these two things so well together, we should do everything together,” Rubin said. “It just makes sense. Most communities run this way. There’s one organization, not two.”
The men noted that both groups spend considerable amounts of money and effort on trying to attract people to Gulfport, duplicating their work and wasting resources. But each also has particular areas of specialty. The GMA is better at organizing events, such as the Gecko Festival, Tuesday Fresh Market, Holiday Hoopla and Get Rescued, while the chamber excels at working with local, county and state officials for the benefit of its members.
“It can be good for both if we structure it properly,” Linde said. “Most importantly, it could be good for Gulfport.”
The challenge, Linde said, is figuring out how to organize the new group to protect the mission of each entity and the interests of its respective members.
The majority of the GMA’s members are located in the Gulfport Waterfront Redevelopment District, said Linde. “From the point of view of the GMA, our challenge is to protect the WRD,” he said.
Linde noted, however, that almost half of the 80 members of the GMA are also members of the chamber, which means they pay membership fees twice.
The 57.9-acre district extends along Beach Boulevard S. from 21st Avenue S. to the shoreline, according to the City of Gulfport’s website, and was established to promote the revitalization of the area while maintaining its unique character and existing residential neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the chamber’s roughly 150 members include businesses not only in Gulfport but also in south St. Petersburg, Pasadena and the beach communities, and range from retail stores and restaurants to light manufacturers and Palms of Pasadena Hospital, according to Rubin.
“All the service areas will continue to be served under the new organization, so nobody is being excluded,” he said.
Neither group is in a big rush, the men said, and many details have yet to be worked out. In addition to a new structure being established, new bylaws will have to be written, bank accounts audited and consolidated, and a new board selected, among other tasks.
Linde estimated it might take three or four months to merge the groups; Rubin said the process would be finalized before the end of 2018.
The main thing, Rubin said, is that one cohesive group will be able to meet everyone’s needs.
“There no longer will be ‘them’ and ‘us,’” he said. “It will be ‘we.’”