You could say every day in Sarasota is a Chamber of Commerce Day. With average temperatures of 82 degrees, white sandy beaches, crystal clear water and blue skies, it’s no wonder people are flocking here to live, work and play. Most likely, the chamber will be hosting one of its nearly 100 events on any one of those given days. But the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce is so much more than just chamber chicken lunches.
Sure, they may be dining on chicken, but more than 500 attendees at the Sarasota Chamber’s 103rd Annual Meeting on Friday, Oct. 27, at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, will learn about the impact the chamber is making on our community through advocacy and programming related to key area issues such as affordable housing and workforce development.
In the 2023 fiscal year, the Sarasota Chamber had a goal to reach more than 1,325 member businesses. With a record number of new members and high renewal rates, the chamber beat its goal with businesses affirming that the organization provides value. Sixty-thousand working individuals comprise those 1,325-plus member businesses. According to the U.S. census in 2021, 148,594 people were employed in Sarasota County, which means that the chamber represents 40% of the working population. Proving that the chamber embodies its purpose as the “voice of business.”
By listening to its member voices, the chamber helps to create opportunities and solutions through the number of councils and programs it stewards. The Government Issues Council, led by Joe C. Hembree, chair-elect of the chamber board of directors, monitors and develops public policy positions that are pro-business and pro-greater Sarasota and sets the chamber’s legislative priorities.
In 2023, those priorities focused on four key themes:
- Transportation and infrastructure
- Education and workforce
- Water quality
- Economic development
To accurately represent our members’ concerns regarding these issues affecting their businesses, the chamber surveyed its members and had a response of more than 250 businesses. No surprise that workforce — retaining employees and attracting new hires — and affordable housing surfaced as the top two items. More than 73% of respondents reported that lack of affordable housing was causing moderate to severe disruption to their businesses.
Likewise, in a survey sent to the chamber’s Young Professional Group that comprises working individuals from age 19 to 40, of the more than 500 respondents, 96% shared that they feel the cost of housing is negatively impacting the local economy and 51% shared that they are housing-cost burdened, which means that they are spending more than 30% of their gross income on housing.
As reported last month, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city of Sarasota is now $2,202. On a visit to Boston a few weeks ago, local agents were advertising one-bedrooms for rent in the upscale Beacon Hill neighborhood for around $2,750.
Thankfully, in September, the Sarasota City Commission created a new zoning ordinance giving developers incentives to construct higher-density projects that include at least 15% attainable units. In part, the new zoning changes were made due to the chamber’s lobbying efforts. But there is still work to be done.
In partnership with the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, Community Assisted & Supported Living Inc., Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Sarasota Chamber is hosting an Affordable Housing Summit from 2-3:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, at the Sarasota Memorial Hospital Auditorium. At the summit, the chamber will share more detailed findings from the aforementioned surveys and bring together local government officials and business owners to learn about best practices from across the county.
Regarding workforce, the Sarasota Chamber is making big strides through the CareerEdge Funders Collaborative and Opportunities for All. In 2023, CareerEdge awarded a record $205,000 in employer grants to train more than 300 local employees. It also delivered four bridges to careers with fast-track programs in marine service, automotive lube tech and certified nursing assistants with a new electrical training cohort underway that led to an average $3.48 wage increase upon training completion.
Launched in 2021, Opportunities for All is a two-part program that helps small and minority businesses grow and places interns with area businesses over the summer. Funded by the Barancik Foundation, Opportunities for All received more than 100 applications for businesses assistance funds and was able to deploy $100,000 to 45 minority businesses in our community. This past summer, 27 diverse, aspiring leaders were provided professional development and placed in internships at 16 local businesses. Employers of interns in the Opportunities for All program are fully funded for their participation.
While the chamber’s events, like the Annual Meeting taking place this week, are part of the organization’s core programming and funding and the largest way to facilitate connections among its members, your Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce is so much more. In fact, it is a member of the top 2% of chambers nationwide with a four-star accreditation due to its community impact from its additional programming like affordable housing advocacy, CareerEdge workforce training and Opportunities for All.
It’s been one of the highlights of my career to serve the Chamber as the chair of the board of directors. From meeting the members at our monthly Trustee events, playing poorly in the annual golf tournament to lobbying our legislative leaders in Tallahassee, working alongside President & CEO Heather Kasten to represent our business community has been an immense pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity to serve.