When the North Tampa Bay Chamber began two decades ago, it was known as the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce.
In the beginning, it had 65 members and met in a garage.
Now, it has 734 members — with some based as far away as Brooksville and St. Petersburg.
It attracts a wide range of political and business leaders to speak at, and attend its monthly breakfasts and luncheons.
The chamber also hosts numerous networking and learning opportunities each month.
It frequently celebrates with businesses through grand openings and ribbon cuttings, too.
Beyond that, the chamber seeks to help businesses as they navigate through government bureaucracy and learn about community organizations. They also act as an advocate on issues affecting businesses.
“We’ve come a long way in 20 years,” said Hope Allen, president and CEO, during the organization’s breakfast meeting earlier this month.
The chamber was born long before the area’s widely known developments, such as The Shops at Wiregrass, AdventHealth Wesley Chapel, Pasco-Hernando State College’s Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, Tampa Premium Outlets, and Cypress Creek Town Center. And, that’s not to mention the scores of subdivisions, schools, restaurants, hotels and small businesses that now make up Wesley Chapel and nearby communities.
Over time, the North Tampa Bay Chamber has moved from the garage to an old flower shop to a storefront at The Grove, to its current home in Lutz.
It has shifted direction, too, Allen said.
“In 2013, the board of directors decided we were going to switch our focus from being ‘the parties, pageants and parades’ to the connector, the convener and the catalyst.”
“It was scary for everybody. We went from a nonprofit organization that was robbing Peter to Paul, to a membership-based business organization,” Allen said.
“We said we’ve got to stop what we’re doing with all these things, and really focus on the needs of our business community.
“So, we went on a listening tour. We went around. We visited all of our members.
“We said, ‘What is happening with your business? What is happening with Wesley Chapel? How can we help?’” Allen said.
The businesses responded: “They said we need somebody to be an advocate for our businesses, we need somebody to go to, when there’s an issue,” she said.
The chamber stepped up to accept the challenge, Allen said.
When someone broke a water line on State Road 54, for instance, the chamber set about to make sure it got fixed, Allen said.
Now, the chamber fields all sorts of calls.
“We know code enforcement now. I have his personal cellphone number now,” she said.
Creating a strong business network
“We’ve grown and evolved, and made ourselves important. We weren’t very important way back in the day, to the elected officials. We weren’t important to the region, as a whole, until everything started happening up here. Then, they were saying, ‘What is going on in Wesley Chapel?’
“We had built this amazing network of businesses and built this amazing network of community,” Allen said.
In 2015, it combined with the New Tampa Chamber, keeping the Wesley Chapel Chamber of Commerce, but adding a tag line: Serving New Tampa.
“It was seamless,” Allen said. “We started to really grow. We started to really have the pulse on what was happening.
“Businesses were coming to us and they were saying: ‘We need this.’
“The developers would come to us, ‘We’ve got this land, we want to do something with it.’
Allen recalled that a man walked into the office, then at The Grove, seeking information about Wesley Chapel. He wanted to take a look around, so Allen took him on what she calls her first “windshield tour.”
It turns out that he represented the hotel developer who built the Fairfield Inn & Suites, in Wiregrass, which opened last year — three years after that initial visit.
The chamber often is involved in work that won’t come into fruition for years, Allen said.
She credits the chamber’s board, ambassadors and members for the progress the organization has made.
“What we have going on here is incredible. We all know it. We can feel it. This community is incredible. This business community is amazing. We support each other. We grow with each other. We cry with each other,” she said.
She and her staff are committed to serve chamber members, she said.
“We stand behind all of our members. We speak with one voice for our membership,” she said.
In 2018, the chamber rebranded itself as the North Tampa Bay Chamber.
“We didn’t leave Wesley Chapel behind, we just brought everybody into the arms of what is North Tampa Bay,” said Allen, who is passionate about the value that chambers can bring to communities.
Across the country, she said, “chambers of commerce are having the conversation now, ‘Are we relevant? Do you need a chamber of commerce in your community?’”
In her view, chambers “are here to serve a purpose, in every single community.
“If you’ve seen one chamber, you’ve seen one chamber.
“We’re all different. We’re all governed by our own board of directors. We all have our own programming that’s different.
“We’re not in competition with other chambers of commerce.
“If you can join every single chamber of commerce in the region, do it. Because you’re going to get something out of each and every one of them, “ Allen said.
Published August 28, 2019