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Critics say some smaller chambers are nearly broke

Chamber faces challenges in holding coalition together

MISSISSIPPI GULF COAST — The Coast Chamber, “The Voice of Coast Business,” recently ran a nearly full-page advertisement in The Sun Herald that said, “The wisdom of a single, unified Chamber of Commerce in Harrison County has never been clearer.”

But there are some rebels in the ranks who claim that:

• Membership is down, and dues are up.

• The Coast Chamber has been without an executive director for a long time.

• The Coast Chamber has about $70,000 worth of debt, and it is having a difficult time financially.

Critics say that the coalition is in danger of falling apart, and that a couple of the smaller city chambers are nearly broke. Solving the problems might require redefining the relationship between the 12-year-old Coast Chamber and the five individual chambers in Gulfport, Biloxi, Long Beach, Orange Grove/Lyman and Pass Christian.

Largely the dissension in the Coast Chamber has been confined to private meetings and kept out of the media. But when asked, chamber leaders acknowledge some challenges.

“Like every organization, the Coast Chamber is going through some changes right now,” said Kenny Holloway, president of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce. “A year ago when we reorganized the Coast Chamber, we wanted local chambers to focus on local issues in each particular town, and the Coast Chamber to be more regional-issue oriented. That is in essence what we have now. It may be confusing to some people. Anytime you have change in the structure of an organization, if you don’t get a one-on-one explanation, there might be some confusion. I think these organizations always have to be massaged, and you always have to be constant with change.”

Rumors about problems in the chamber were fueled by the recent resignation of Harry Joachim as executive director of the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce. Joachim said he resigned in order to pursue other business opportunities.

“I did actually leave for economic reasons,” Joachim said. “I was at a point where I wasn’t going to make any more money because there was no way to get promoted inside the Biloxi Chamber. I had to supplement my income the past few years I have been there. It simply wasn’t financially rewarding. At the same time, I do have some concerns about the relationship between city chambers and the entity of the Coast Chamber. The Coast Chamber has more work to do on how it should be structured and what its real mission should be.”

Joachim said the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce had an incredibly successful year in 2000 under the leadership of Rick Stewart. But Joachim said he isn’t sure where the chamber is headed in the next few years.

The Coast Chamber spent last year re-evaluating the organization and doing some restructuring. Now the city chambers are more fiscally responsible for themselves, relieving the Coast Chamber of some of the operating expenses that have now been shifted to the city chambers.

“Yet the Coast Chamber still keeps slightly more of the dues than go to the city chambers,” Joachim said. “It is like an austerity budget that spreads the misery around.”

Some supporters of city chambers feel like the city chambers do most of the work and raise most of the money. So they would like to keep more of the money.

Joachim said the idea of a Coast Chamber has merit; there can be advantages to several chambers working together under one corporate umbrella.

“There is a lot to said for economy of scale and strength of numbers,” Joachim said. “But that concept devised 12 years ago was promoted as what was going to be a council of chambers, five city chambers operating equally in a sphere of influence at the same time collectively getting together to do things for the region. But it became not a council of chambers, but a chamber of councils trying to relegate the five city chambers back down to less than chamber status. That led to some dissension inside the Biloxi chamber.”

One earlier result was that the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce lost membership. Some opposed to the merger into the Coast Chamber left the Biloxi Chamber and started the Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce, which is not a member of the Coast Chamber. Some people feel it isn’t very efficient to have two chambers in Biloxi.

Joachim sees the roles of the city chambers as being the entities that generate the most activity, doing work such as preserving the history and culture of the cities, putting on programs to help youths and seniors, and spearheading efforts such as cleanup campaigns. Joachim isn’t opposed to the idea of the Coast Chamber, but feels it should primarily take on issues that affect the entire county such as transportation and education.

“That’s where efforts should be placed, and less on things that are being handled real well by local chambers,” Joachim said. “A lot of good came out of the Coast Chamber, most importantly Coast 21, the issues group. But Coast 21 eventually grew legs of its own and separated from the Coast Chamber. Leadership Gulf Coast and the Salute to the Military are great programs that have come out of the Coast Chamber. They have done some good things. But they spend a lot of time managing themselves and trying to manage city chambers when city chambers do just fine on their own. I have obvious affection for local chambers and what they do. The Coast Chamber should be more of an issues group. They should concentrate strictly on issues.”

Coast Chamber chairman Chevis Swetman, who is also chairman of People’s Bank, said the Coast Chamber should be judged by its deeds.

“The best example we can give is our lobbying effort this year,” Swetman said. “We had someone from the Coast Chamber in the Capitol every day of the legislative session. That in itself is probably the best thing the chamber has done in probably 12 years.

“I’ll be quite honest with you. We have gone through an extensive process of trying to let everyone know how to lobby because we think the future is going to be very decisive for us. Thank goodness there was not much on the agenda this year. But we want to be assured that when the budget process gets played out in Jackson, legislators know the needs in South Mississippi.”

Swetman said the legislative affairs committee of the chamber was a great success. But others claim little progress was made on key Coast issues such as a four-year college, funding for education and a new east-west highway corridor. State budget difficulties made it difficult to progress.

Swetman said the chamber coalition effort still makes sense and, in fact, larger coalitions are also important. For example, the Coast Chamber is participating in a regional coalition chamber in the Gulf Coast region from Baton Rouge to Pensacola.

“We’re looking at trying to promote this area as a region,” Swetman said. “That’s what we are trying to promote, new regionalism.”

Swetman said that the reason why the Coast Chamber has not hired an executive director is that the chamber has to operate more like a business. The Coast Chamber is taking advantage of volunteer efforts and planning to identify problems and needs, and then do the necessary hiring. He acknowledges that membership is down, but attributes that primarily to the economy.

“Membership is down to a certain extent, but it is up to us to build up membership,” Swetman said. “I believe it is down not because of what we are trying to do, but mainly because of the slowdown in the national economy.

“I don’t feel the Gulf Coast is in a recession, but I do believe we have sort of plateaued for a while. And maybe that is not so bad. But I think what we are trying to do with the chamber right now is to put the emphasis here on the regional issues, the Gulf Coast. We have the base r
eali
gnment and closure hearings coming up. That is something that needs to be addressed regionally, not locally.”

Swetman said that for a number of year

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