Sarasota Chamber President Kevin Cooper took over in fall of 2016, and Manatee Chamber President Jacki Dezelski officially took on her new job in mid-2017, but neither is truly new to the business organizations, both having worked under their predecessors. That means the leaders needed little education on important policy matters affecting business on the Gulf Coast. We spoke with the Chamber executives about how to keep the region open for business. 

Regarding the legislative session, what are you speaking about with lawmakers? KEVIN COOPER:We have a shared interest in higher education institutions that serve both markets. Last year, we were on an unfortunate side of some cuts to funding that were ongoing. From a business perspective there's nothing more important than the pipeline of talent coming down the road, people we're going to hire five, 10 years from now. Talent supply is an issue right now. And when you look at the demographic of folks we have around, and then the turnover that's coming and pending retirements, we have to make sure our community locally is getting ready to supplement that. But also, from an attraction standpoint, you want businesses that are looking to either start or relocate here to know, "Hey, I've got a long-term pipeline of talent coming." JACKI DEZELSKI: Not only are we looking at that from the educational institution perspective, in doing what we need to do to engage the business community with higher ed, but both the Manatee Young Professionals and Sarasota YPG have made inroads with our colleges and universities in attracting more college students. Making connections between students and our young professionals gives them a much closer peer set to understand the benefits of the tremendous quality of the life here in the Manatee-Sarasota region. When you take a look at the educational opportunities that are available in our region, it's tremendous the talent we're educating in our area, and we want to ensure they are making connections with local businesses before they graduate so that they're more likely to stay. COOPER: That's what we're seeing through both the young professionals programming and internship program that a lot of the businesses are offering. From a young professionals perspective, if the switching cost is just about my salary, and I can make $5,000 more at this job in Tampa—or in Ohio—I'm more prone to go. But when you do this community immersion effort and you get them involved, it's not just about, "maybe I can make a little bit more somewhere else," or, "they've got a little more entertainment district." It's, "hey, I sit on the board of something here, and I've made a lot of friends here." It increases the switching costs. Immerse them in the community to get them involved outside of just their 9-to-5 to really feel a part of this community. Get some community ownership and make it a lot harder to leave. 


During the recession many feltt the lack of diversification in industry made things especially hard here. Are we seeing other sectors develop?  DEZELSKI:I don't know that there's ever enough, but we've certainly seen increased focus on diversification from the chambers and our economic development organizations. Look at some of the key strategies around Port Manatee and the sports performance industry. Look at the World Rowing Championships, the premier sports complex, IMG. That's something unique to our region across the country, and to use that as a tool to attract and expand related businesses is a huge opportunity. COOPER: In our region you have a strong financial and professional services industry. You have strong hospitality and tourism. You have strong health care, strong real estate and construction, strong cultural and arts. There are many communities that would kill for five different, strong industries. We have some real cornerstone industries. The problem we ran into in the recession is all of those play off each other. When the recession hits and people aren't matriculating down to this region, real estate and construction suffers. They're also not traveling, so hospitality and tourism suffers. So we have these interdependent, diverse industries. 


What's the greatest opportunity on the horizon and how can chambers better pursue that?  DEZELSKI:One of the roles the chamber can play in helping businesses expand and grow is to help them manage change. Both chambers seek to bring small business resources to the table. When you think about the expertise and knowledge that a small business needs to have from outside sources compared to a larger company and vise versa, that's where chambers of commerce, as business organizations that are conveners of the thought leaders in the community, can come together and deliver great value. COOPER: You've got, in the region, a couple issues that we focus on. You have a skills gap pipeline. Even during the recession when unemployment was 11 percent, you had jobs looking for people. Now unemployment is lower, but you still have jobs looking for people. The problem is, the jobs that are available don't match the skills of the people that are looking for jobs. And it's across a multitude of industries. It's just as critical in insurance as it is in HVAC. So how do you make sure that when people want to grow and they're ready to invest that they're able to? On our side, businesses are ready to hire, and the workforce that would otherwise want to fill those jobs can't find an affordable place to live. It's the biggest crisis Sarasota County is facing now. It hurts our ability to attract new businesses, because they go, "Hey, I'd like to move to this region, but where are my employees going to live?" That's a big challenge for us, to help influence policy that helps create those opportunities, because it's getting worse before it gets any better. I lose young professionals because they do need to start at entry level jobs and build their way up. We're having trouble with housing affordability, and then we're having trouble attracting people to come to the area because cost of living is relatively flat across a number of lines except for housing.   DEZELSKI:There certainly are areas of affordability, but it's not in the area in which [our young professionals] prefer to live.  COOPER:Human nature is so simple. When you have policies in place where the path of least resistance that yields the most benefit is these luxury condos, it's no surprise that's what we get. Why would we get anything different? And that's not to a builder's discredit. Any business would do the same thing. It's about creating that path of least resistance that yields just as much, if not more, of the benefit to do something different. But we just don't have that. DEZELSKI:Manatee County recently passed a new set of incentives, hoping to look at mixed-use development that includes attainable housing in a southwest district, that US 41 corridor basically from central Bradenton down to the Sarasota-Manatee line. I'm going to be interested to see if that attracts the type of attention from developers to put in some catalytic project that shows this type of an incentive works and creates the right environment for us to bring on attainable housing.   COOPER:With that passing, it brings how complicated the issue is. At the federal level, over 80 percent of federal loan-backing programs for housing are strictly on single-family residences. They don't want to get into mixed-use. They don't want to get into multi-family. So we build these things, and, if we build it, maybe they don't come because they can't get financing because all these loan-backing programs are focused on four walls and a roof. How do you make that shift, especially from a federal government standpoint, to support people looking to be in mixed-use, multi-family type housing? Right now, the policy isn't there to promote that.  DEZELSKI:It's putting the pro forma together, even on the lending side, too. Getting back to the role the chambers play, that really boils down to advocacy and ensuring we're keeping this issue top of mind, giving them real world examples from our community of folks who are seeing this as a barrier to them either coming to our community or staying in our community.  


You both follow people that were in charge of your chambers for extended periods of time (Bob Bartz in Manatee and Steve Queior in Sarasota). What's the most important lesson you learned from your predecessors?   DEZELSKI:I worked with Bob for 21 years before he passed away earlier this year, and the culture he instilled in our organization from a staff perspective—although it permeates leadership in the full membership—is that if you're keeping your members' needs at the heart of your mission and your program of work, then you're doing the right thing as a chamber of commerce. For me that's just the example of how to lead a chamber.  COOPER:Steve was always really good, and I worked with him for a couple years when I did the public policy work. For me, it was always being reminded of that core, real value that chamber provides in the community—it's ability to convene really high thinking, high-level people that are able to either take advantage of the opportunities that are being presented, or solve the problems that exist.  DEZELSKI:If not the chamber, then who? If the chamber isn't engaging leaders on tough issues and challenges related to education, infrastructure, healthcare, economic development, taxation, then who will be? Who would do that? COOPER:And most small businesses aren't hiring a lobbyist. So, who's out there doing this for you? Because it does affect you. 


How do you make the chamber deal with the changes in the market?  COOPER:It's tough. Just with technology, every business would say the last 10 years have been very different than the 40 years before. It's such a rapid thing, and from a chamber perspective, it's stop looking in the rearview mirror and pay attention to what is ahead of you. If we don't meet our members when they get where they're going, we're going to be irrelevant. It's keeping your head on that swivel to understand where our community is going and where are they going to be in three years, so, when they get there, I am there.   DEZELSKI:It's also, how do we then show our value to do the same thing for our members? We're not only doing it for the operations of the chamber, but we're looking at what resources do we bring to the table to help our members weather the exact same change.


What’s the biggest policy change you'd like to see in your local jurisdictions?  COOPER:Establishing where are we headed. What does 10 years from now look like here in the City of Sarasota, and in Sarasota County? I don't necessarily see a unified message of that in existence, and it’s hard to really coalesce a community around something when they don't really get that sense of, "Hey, where are we going?" And the second piece would really be to have a sense of urgency to focus on policies that address those core issues. When you talk about retaining youth, what are the local governments doing? What policies do we need in place? We can bemoan the loss of young people, but if you stood up and said, "Hey, Policymaker, what have you done to help?,” I don't know that the answers would be plentiful.  DEZELSKI:Manatee County is still working itself through a number of changes to the land development code, and so when we talk about things like attainable housing and infill redevelopment, encouraging that type of growth and redevelopment within our community has been a priority for our chamber. Manatee County is also undertaking a “back to the future exercise” taking a look at where we were 20 years ago, where we are now in 2017, and what 2037 looks like. Right after the first of the year, we're going to engage our young professionals in that same discussion with county officials. You do, at times, have to take a look in the rearview mirror to understand where you've come from and what's been successful and what's been a hindrance to getting to where we are today.