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Trade Unit Excludes Hispanic Chamber A Decade Of Growth
Trade Unit Excludes Hispanic Chamber In Tampa, Fla.
By Ted Jackovics, Tampa Tribune, Fla.
April 3, 2004
Apr. 3--TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has 325 members and active ties to business trade partners in Puerto Rico and at least seven countries: Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Argentina.
Its membership knows those among a growing influx of wealthy and highly educated people moving to the Tampa Bay area from Central and South America.
It has tracked 15,000 Hispanic businesses in the three-county Tampa Bay area.
However, the Hispanic chamber is not among a group of eight government and quasipublic groups involved in creating an international protocol office that would build trade and tourism relationships for Tampa and Hillsborough County.
The proposal to create the protocol office was announced Wednesday.
"Members of our chamber do lots of international export and import work, but we were not invited to the table," said Hispanic chamber President Juan Vega.
Vega is also vice president and a broker with Carter, a Tampa real estate transaction services company.
"The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has made inroads in working with us, and we work jointly with others on projects involving urban revitalization, but not on economic development," Vega said Friday.
"We would welcome the opportunity to participate, but at the end of the day if we are not invited, we will still try to support the area," he said.
Gene Gray, Hillsborough County director of economic development, said that the eight organizations creating the protocol office were viewed as having the most involvement with international business.
They also were the most likely to contribute financially to the hiring of a protocol officer who will coordinate visits and contacts with international representatives.
The groups contributing a total of $200,000 toward the initial protocol effort are: the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Tampa Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, Tampa Port Authority, Tampa International Airport, University of South Florida and University of Tampa.
"We fully expect a role for the Hispanic chamber as well as many other organizations with interests in international marketing," Gray said.
"This is not going to be a program of the Tampa chamber, although it will be housed there as a logistical convenience," he said.
"It will be the community's protocol office."
Vega said the challenge the Tampa Bay area faces is to think regionally and to think partnerships among groups or "get its shirt handed to it."
In the increasingly globalized economy, with advanced technology and communications, Tampa with its seemingly favorable proximity to Latin American countries faces trade competition from places such as Las Vegas, which recently created a protocol office that tapped the city's legions of international visitors.
"There needs to be a paradigm shift in thinking," Vega said.
"Old ways of doing business must be displaced," he said.
Vega cited a trip that Hispanic chamber members made several years ago to Mexico.
Other Tampa Bay representatives did not follow up on leads and inroads the local Hispanic group forged with Mexican government officials, he said.
"At some point in time, somebody from the Port of Tampa might have become involved" with us, Vega said, "but as to us being invited to the table with the port, it never happened."
Gray said that no one has been lined up to become protocol director, a position that could pay $70,000.
"It is not designed for anyone in particular," Gray said.
A Decade Of Growth
April 3, 2004
A handful of Hispanic business owners gathered at a local restaurant 20 years ago to create a network to promote and expand their businesses in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
They began meeting informally each month for a business card exchange and eventually formed the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce.
Today, the chamber has 122 members and a full-time executive director. Last month, it celebrated its 10th anniversary.
Getting to this point had its ups and downs.
"When you have a board and it is made up of volunteers, they're pulled in different directions," said Jorge Chacon, former chairman and founding member of the chamber. "Their time is strained and when you don't have someone aboard to do certain things, there's the potential for things not to get done."
The chamber has operated out of a one-room office on North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota since 2000. The six board members took turns answering phones and doing administrative work.
That changed in January, when the board hired Derek Winzer as its new executive director.
With the help of a $10,000 grant it received from Manatee County last year, the chamber hired Winzer, a corporate finance bank consultant from Mexico City.
"For many years, it has taken personal and professional time to make it happen," said chairman Vicente Medina. "Now we have somebody that we can have coordinate and do the administrative job, implement programs and bring more value to the programs."
For now, Winzer, a native of Venezuela, will be responsible for handling the chamber's marketing, scheduling monthly seminars and workshops, distributing scholarships and writing newsletters.
"What we really need now is people to see the chamber with pride so they can say 'I want to be a member,'" Winzer said. "But we have to first build that image. We have to first show that we're here and that we're something good for them."
Members say the chamber does not compete with the more established chambers in Sarasota and Manatee.
Instead, it provides specific services to businesses that interact with the Hispanic community, something they say is needed in an area whose Hispanic population nearly tripled from 1990 to 2000.
"The main chamber has their programs, and our niche is to provide services and programs that are helpful to businesses that have Hispanic employees, Hispanic customers or businesses with Latin American countries," Medina said.
Attorney C.J. Czaia, a longtime member and past chairman of Gulf Coast, sees his involvement with the group as a way "to give back" to a community that has supported his practice over the years.
"We made our mark initially by catering to Latinos. The chamber helped us develop clientele for that," Czaia said.
The University of South Florida's Sarasota-Manatee campus has also been a member for several years.
Recruitment coordinator Molly McWaters said the campus' involvement with the chamber has three purposes: to learn about trends and events in the local Hispanic community, to share information on programs and workshops and to show support of the Hispanic community.
"It is our hope that chamber members will serve as ambassadors and spread the word in the community that USF Sarasota-Manatee is dedicated to recruiting and serving Hispanic students," McWaters said.
The chamber hit a turbulent period during the late 1990s, when some board members took issue with the way former chairman Alex Chavez ran the chamber.
Chavez, president of JCB Insurance of Manasota, served on the board from 1998 to 2000 before being appointed Region VI chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
He is now serving his second term as a board member of the U.S. Hispanic chamber.
Chavez said there were personality differences and disagreements about how to raise funds. During that time, former board members said, the chamber lost key contributors.
Chavez said his main focus during his chairmanship was growth.
"When I became president, they were still a little chamber. I was trying to increase finances through activities such as the gala and award events," Chavez said.
Today, the chamber is working to become more visible in the community, Medina said.
Its board has re-established monthly workshops and seminars to discuss immigration, affordable housing and capital procurement for business owners.
The chamber has also concentrated on attracting new businesses and building additional relationships with Latin American countries. In May 2003, partnered with Hispanic chambers in Fort Myers and Bonita Springs to open a satellite office in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The office will be stationed at a law firm affiliated with the chamber and is the result of a tour the chamber gave to foreign dignitaries from Latin America last year.
The Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce has scheduled its next seminars, "How to start your own business" and "How to obtain your minority business certification," Wednesday at USF Sarasota- Manatee, College Hall, 5700 N. Tamiami Trail. The seminars are from 9 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 3 p.m. Cost is $5 for nonmembers. For more information, contact Derek Winzer at 358-7065.