After several months of discussions regarding a potential merger between chambers of commerce in Dade City and Zephyrhills, those talks have been put on pause — for now.
“The conversation has definitely taken a back seat,” according to John Moors, executive director of the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce. “I can’t say that it’s shut down for good, that we don’t know, but the task force has stopped meeting currently.”
The boards for both chambers approved the formation of a task force last year to look into the logistics and possible benefits of merging the two organizations.
The task force involved about 20 stakeholders — 10 from each respective organization — representing hospitals, banks, and other small businesses and groups.
Randy Stovall, provost emeritus for Pasco-Hernando State College, chaired the task force. He’s been active with both chambers for years.
The group met about a dozen times, from October 2020 through April 2021, with groups split into a budget committee, a membership committee and a mission committee.
Its three main objectives were membership, community advocacy and economic development.
The task force generated enough progress to reach a consensus on a proposed name for a merged chamber: Greater East Pasco Chamber Alliance.
But news that the merger talks have paused was announced in the Greater Dade City Chamber of Commerce’s August newsletter.
The newsletter indicated the Dade City chamber’s financial outlook exceeded expectations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, so merging its organization with the Zephyrhills chamber wasn’t quite as pressing as originally once thought.
Melonie Monson, the CEO of the Greater Zephyrhills Chamber of Commerce, said the task force, on the whole, had “put together very great reasons why a merger would be the right direction to go, and really had fleshed out the greatest perspectives from this and what advantage it would be for both communities.”
But she said various hurdles surfaced when trying to flesh out the finer details of a merger concept, she said.
Monson said “the biggest problem” resulted from both chambers being content with their own current leadership, and not wanting either her or Moors to step down or take a less prominent role within a merged organization.
Monson put it like this: “We just felt like, until one of us is ready to retire, then this would be on pause. Doesn’t mean that (a merger) wasn’t the right thing to do, it’s that neither one was ready to say goodbye.”
Another sticking point, she said, came with determining locations of where a combined chamber’s main office and secondary office should be situated — Zephyrhills, Dade City, or vice versa — and how to best leverage economy of scale.
“We felt strongly there needed to be a presence in both communities of the chamber,” Monson said.
Task force supports merger concept
The task force overall found a merged chamber “made sense” and could yield several benefits, Monson said.
Specifically, it suggested that a larger, combined chamber “would have a stronger voice and advocacy on the county and state level, and members would gain more of a value by expanding the geographic reach of the chamber,” Monson said.
It also suggested that merging the Dade City and Zephyrhills groups would better help navigate booming commercial and residential development in Central and East Pasco.
With that, Monson said the task force observed a merger “would really help us in the risk of losing our territory to other entities, and making a stand of, ‘This is East Pasco.’”
These were likewise important factors for leadership within the Dade City chamber, too.
Moors detailed how the East Pasco area historically has been known as a more rural area, with less focus on business development and manufacturing.
This may not be the case for much longer, with rampant growth on the community’s doorstep.
“For the most part, there hasn’t been a lot of activity of companies moving into this particular area, but we do see that this may well change as the population increases and the density increases and the demographics change,” he said.
As East Pasco continues to grow, Moors emphasized the importance of being “in front of that wave of growth, rather than trying to catch up.”
Pandemic spurred initial merger discussions
Both chamber leaders have casually discussed the possibility of combining their respective organizations for a few years now, but more serious talks didn’t begin until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020.
Ramping up those conversations was important for the Dade City chamber to prepare an action plan in a worst-case scenario, given the uncertainty around the effects of the coronavirus on the area’s business and economic climate, Moors explained.
“With everything shut down, we just didn’t really know what anything was going to look like, we didn’t know what was going to happen with our membership, we didn’t know whether we were going to be able to have a Kumquat Festival, whether we were going to have any events, because at that point, everything was literally locked down. In fact, the chamber was closed for a period of time last year,” said Moors.
Since then, however, Moors said the Dade City chamber has experienced an upbeat financial outlook, with membership reportedly up 15% year-on-year, combined with a successful enough scaled-down Kumquat Festival.
Put another way, negative revenue impacts caused by COVID-19 never materialized for the chamber, Moors said. “So, the need to merge was not as urgent as we had feared,” he added.
Monson said the pandemic provided “a great opportunity” to form a task force to discuss the merits of a proposed merger, and garner various perspectives.
But she emphasized the Zephyrhills chamber didn’t need to enter the merger talks strictly out of concern regarding financial sustainability.
She said she was confident in her organization’s membership base and other efforts, even during the pandemic.
“You know, we’re a strong chamber no matter what, and we knew we were going to be,” she said. “We did not forecast the gloom and doom.”
Rather, joining forces with the Dade City chamber on a merger task force was more to vet the various benefits and outcomes of such an exercise, Monson acknowledged.
Merger talks likely not done
Monson said the merger concept — and its varied findings — will likely be revisited once she or Moors leave their current leadership posts, whenever that happens. She said the work of the task force could be revisited, once she or Moors moves on.
“I believe that we could come up with great ideas of location, I think that would be something that we would get worked out pretty easily, but the biggest thing was we were going to pause it until one or the other was ready to retire, or move on to another venture in life,” Monson said.
If a merger eventually occurs, it would be the third merger of its type among Pasco County chambers.
The North Tampa Bay Chamber is the result of combining chambers that previously represented Wesley Chapel, New Tampa, Trinity and Odessa.
The Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce resulted from a merger between the West Pasco and Central Pasco chambers.
Published August 11, 2021