At a time when businesses are struggling due to COVID-19, the chamber struggled, too.
The Board of Directors voted on April 30 to recommend dissolution of the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce, which has served the business community since 1962. The membership will now be asked to vote on the dissolution, as signs continue to point to a devastating economic impact of COVID-19.
Aimee Stafford said in an April 30 phone interview with the Palm Coast Observer that when she took over as president in the beginning of 2020, she knew she would have to downsize the organization — both in staff and in office space. But the state chamber now forecasts a reduction of 20%-30% in membership, and she believes Flagler County’s chamber is likely to be even harder hit because of the high percentage of small businesses in the community.
In addition to membership dues, advertising and events made up the other two sources of funding for the chamber, and those are dried up due to COVID-19.
“We couldn’t have got hit any worse,” said volunteer Chairman Mark Langello.
Both Langello and Stafford agreed that neither continuing operations nor bankruptcy is a responsible option at this time, and they expect that the membership will agree with the board’s recommendation to dissolve.
Legacy of the chamber
Langello praised some of the previous chamber presidents: Dick Morris, Doug Baxter, Rebecca DeLorenzo, Heather Edwards. He said the chamber leaves a legacy of a vibrant, diversified business community.
“The chamber was one resource that helped the community, and I really believe it will be replaced,” Langello said. “Communities like this deserve a chamber.”
Donald O’Brien, who is a Flagler County commissioner and was chairman of the chamber two times, said he was saddened by the news.
“I think Palm Coast has a great business community, but this COVID-19 crisis is bigger than any of us."
AIMEE STAFFORD, Flagler Chamber president since January 2020
“Every community needs a chamber, I believe,” O’Brien said. “And I think it’ll come back in a new format at some point. But I certainly understand the board’s decision, given what I know about their financials over the last few years.”
Among the problems the chamber faced was about its own identity.
“I don’t think there’s been a clear path or direction about what the chamber wanted to do, what its role was,” O’Brien said.
What is the next step?
Langello, who was given a plaque in 2006 as the chamber’s 1,000th member, said the chamber is already exploring opportunities with neighboring chambers and other organizations to help businesses in need.
He is hopeful that whatever does fill the void left by the chamber will be better. Similarly, other organizations will be assessing their missions and improving, in response to COVID-19's impact.
“You might see more specialized organization — smaller, leaner, more dedicated to a certain aspect of the business community — and that’s fine, too, and they may be healthier,” he said.
In the meantime, O’Brien said, businesses can find support through the Flagler County Department of Economic Opportunity and the city of Palm Coast, as well as through other organization, including the Flagler Home Builders Association and the Flagler County Association of Realtors.
“Every time something ends, something new begins,” Langello said. “The disappointment, the nostalgia gets washed away when the new thing comes around, and it ends up being a better thing anyway. I’m sure the new thing will be better than what we’re experiencing, because it’ll be able to adapt and be what it needs to be without the legacy of the old model.”