Rod Thomas has only lived in the U.S. for six years, but he’s already accomplished two major endeavors in Osprey: reinvigorating the only hotel there and helping jump-start the Osprey-Nokomis Chamber of Commerce. He owns Bentley’s Boutique Hotel and has been president of the chamber since 2012.
Before the British native bought the hotel in 2009, he and a business partner owned an engineering services firm in the U.K. that provided engineering maintenance to places such as Windsor Castle and Hampton Court.
The Sarasota Observer sat down with Thomas to talk about the chamber, which was revived three years ago, the business climate of Osprey and the chamber’s future efforts.
Q: The Osprey-Nokomis Chamber of Commerce was defunct for a while. What happened? How have you grown?
A: The chamber became defunct in 1971 or 1972. It ran out of steam, and the community was divided by U.S. 41, which was expanded at that time. About four years ago, a man in town named Ven Konuru (a business
owner in Osprey), came to several local businesses and thought it would be a good idea to start it up. We got a group of about seven or eight original board members, with Ven being the original president for the first year. We got about 50 members the first year, and we were excited with 50, we thought that was fantastic. The second year when I became president, we got up to 100. This year, we have about 160 members. Our oldest member is 100 years old — Norma Martin.
Q: What’s the business climate like in Osprey today?
A: When you think there’s 5,000 new houses being built in and around our neighborhood and Benderson invested in the strip mall, you can see that the area is a great site for economic growth. Yes, it used to be a sleepy town — people used to use it as a cut-through from Sarasota to Venice. But now, I can speak from the hotel: the hotel has been fully booked since January, which is unheard of. It’s been an amazing year. When you look at property values the prices have increased dramatically and houses are being snapped up so quickly. That’s a very good sign.
Q: Why is it important to have a chamber?
A: It’s very important for this area. We’re surrounded by larger chambers — we’ve got the Sarasota chamber to the north, we have the Venice chamber, and there’s a chamber on Siesta Key as well. We found in this area that the amount of business we were getting through the chamber was limited. People didn’t want to come off the island; people didn’t want to come down from Sarasota. We sort of got lost in the melee, and we felt that — there’s about 400 businesses in Osprey and Nokomis — we’re all out on our own, and if we all clubbed together we could have a voice.
A lot of businesses in this area are “mom and pop” businesses and there’s not a lot of money to spend on advertising and flying the flag. But if you get together, you can get the word out. We had a saying, “Keep your business local to keep your local business.” And it’s worked very well. It’s still growing.
Q: You’ve been in Osprey for six years now. What are your feelings on the community here?
A: The one thing about Osprey that strikes me is it reminds me so much of the local village community in the U.K. We have, through the chamber, made a group of friends who will be lifelong friends. There’s a great community spirit, and the volunteerism that goes on in Osprey and Nokomis is second to none. It’s a smiley place. It used to be a little fishing village with a small, tight-knit community. That community kind of dispersed a little bit, but now with the chamber back in place, the community spirit is getting back together. This has become home.