Greater Miami, Fort Lauderdale chambers may merge

A memorandum of understanding was signed by the executive committees of each group, the chambers announced on Monday.A task force is being created to explore the structure and operational issues required for the combination to move ahead, and the chambers will decide by the end of the year whether to proceed, the chambers said.

“It’s a great opportunity for our business communities to evaluate this as many of the things we do discuss are very regionalized. ... such as transportation, sea level rise and beach erosion,” said Heiko Dobrikow, chairman of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce and General Manager of the Riverside Hotel. “And when you have a larger, more regional representation, it gives our members certainly more growth potential for their businesses.”

Christine Barney, chairwoman of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Miami’s rbb Communications, concurred. “The potential combination gives more clout to the business community in shaping the future of South Florida,” she said.

“In the past we’ve done a lot of strategic alliances and that can only do so much,” Barney said. “We thought a more-aggressive approach was needed.”

Though membership in both Greater Miami and Greater Fort Lauderdale chambers has remained strong, nationwide, chambers of commerce have suffered declining membership and revenues.

 “Even though we are acquiring new members it is probably not at the same rate as we wish, and there is probably a great opportunity that we have,” Dobrikow said.

The Greater Miami Chamber was founded in 1907 and now boasts about 4,100 members representing about 400,000 employees. The Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber, founded in 1910, has 1,311 company-members that employ more than 500,000.

Both counties are also home to myriad smaller chambers focusing on specific geography or demographics. The idea rose from regular meetings between the president and CEOs of the two organizations, said Miami’s Barry Johnson, who announced recently he will retire at the end of this year.

Said Dan Lindblade, leader of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber, “Barry Johnson and I have been talking over the years and we thought now would be a good time to begin these discussions to see if they lead us into the direction that we both feel is inevitable — a regional chamber with the size and scope of the two largest chambers in Broward and Miami-Dade.”

The Greater Miami chamber will continue the search for Johnson’s replacement during the evaluation period, Barney said.

As more small smartups emerge throughout South Florida, the traditional model of fee-based memberships has become less attractive to some members, who may have specific needs such as international introductions or skills training but not the full range of services now offered, said Barney. The ultimate goal, said both chamber chairs, is to bring more value to members.

Said Barney, “Miami is unique, Broward unique, Palm Beach is unique. ... Whatever we do, we want to keep the strength of the local representation as front and center as possible.”