In May, Gordon “Eric” Knowles became the fourth president the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce has had in its 40-year history.
He brings broad experience in the public and private sectors to the post: After a brief stint as the director of marketing in the Caribbean for American Airlines, he had various roles with the Dolphins and Sun Life Stadium, including senior director of guest services and community relations and the senior director of government affairs. He also has worked for both the Coconut Grove Local Development Corporation and the Coconut Grove Family and Youth Intervention Center on affordable housing and development projects.
Knowles, who spent his childhood and teenage years between South Florida and New York City, had a brief modeling and acting career in New York before eventually returning to Miami and earning a degree in apparel management and merchandising from Florida International University.
Although Knowles has operated in the business world for years, and has not returned to his modeling and acting career, he is still often sharply dressed in tailored suits offset with a bow tie or a pocket square.
We asked him about his plans for the Chamber and about his views on the state of black business in Miami-Dade County:
It is my desire to build on the groundwork that has been laid by my predecessors — Bill Diggs, Dorothy Baker and those who came before them. It is important that I create a legacy that builds on the importance of the Chamber, an importance that speaks of the relevancy of the black business community throughout the African diaspora and the entire South Florida community. I will continue to build on the relationships that were forged before me and to create new relationships as we move forward.
If there is one thing that I would say that I would like to do differently, it would be to create sustainability, something that all Chambers struggle with. Some do a better job than others; some have the infrastructure that allows for natural sustainability to occur, having a viable economically engaged membership base.
My desire is to own a building that can do two things: house our office and create a revenue stream for the Chamber. This can be done through creating a mixed-use facility that will include housing and rental office space. Or we can create what is happening now all over — the “new wave” entrepreneurial space. We need to think into the future; we cannot sit and expect membership and sponsorship to keep our doors open.
In addition, it is important that we create a master plan for our urban core — the true urban core, not what we are now calling the urban core Brickell/Downtown — Richmond Heights, Coconut Grove (the black Grove, the hole in the doughnut), Liberty City, Little Haiti, Opa-locka and Miami Gardens.
People do not like to have this conversation, but it is a conversation that must be had. Integration destroyed the black business community, period. When you didn’t have a choice, when you couldn’t go outside of your pre-subscribed boundaries, you had to depend on the store down the street, you had to go to the black doctor, the black dentist, the black plumber, or car repair shop (shade tree mechanic). There was a black economy, and we realized we had to support one another.
The other side of that equation is that we as a community (black business community) have to understand the relevance and the “why” of a Chamber. Chambers are not put in place to wave a magic wand and bring business to you once you write the check to become a member. Chambers are a place for like-minded individuals and businesses to come together and exchange ideas, to create opportunities amongst one another and to create commerce. You have to become engaged, you have to join a committee, you have to invest your time; not everyone has that luxury because you have to run your business. But you can become a part of a business community that will help you move your business forward. The analogy that I use is this: You know the type, those who join a gym, pay their membership expect results after going for the first week, but never go again — money thrown down the drain. And we have to remain relevant.
Let me say this: The groundwork has been laid. It is now for me to connect the dots.
When David hired me, he told me my job was to win friends and influence people (Dale Carnegie), so that’s what I set out to do. During those years, I was mentored by Thelma Gibson, and today I still am. I serve as the Chairman of the Board of the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative. Through Mrs. G and David, I met Commissioner Willie Gort, I met Jimmy Morales [now Miami Beach city manager], Mayor [Xavier] Suarez, etc., doing many community projects and building low-income housing in Coconut Grove and served as the business developer assisting the businesses along Grand Avenue with the City of Miami’s facade-rehab project. My responsibility was also to identify and bring businesses into that part of the Grove. As a matter of fact, Go Green printing company started by Glenn Diston in the Grove is one of the businesses David and I helped get started back then.
When I left and went to what was then Pro Player Stadium, that is when I guess I would say it all came together. As the director of community relations for the stadium, I had the opportunity to work closely with then [Miami-Dade County Commissioner Betty] Ferguson, and was very involved with the incorporation of Miami Gardens. Throughout my career with the stadium and the Miami Dolphins organization, I had the opportunity to work with both the Miami Gardens elected officials, along with the entire board of Dade County Commissioners, as well as state elected officials, and Congresswoman [Frederica] Wilson, and before her both Congresswoman [Carrie P. Meek] and Congressman [Kendrick] Meek.
In life they say it’s who you know and what you know; as Bruce Turkel said at a seminar during my tenure with the Dolphins, it’s also “who knows you.” It makes a difference when you not only have to call an elected official to meet with them, but it is just as important knowing their staff and them knowing you. Every day I advocate for the Chamber membership, and that is done throughout the various municipalities in Miami-Dade County.