AMPLIFY Clearwater CEO reflects on 100 Years of chamber history, looks ahead

AMPLIFY Clearwater celebrates 100 years of chamber of commerce history in Clearwater this year and CEO Amanda Payne’s present day tenure is already a noteworthy part of the story.

Starting as CEO of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce in January 2019, Payne, a businesswoman and former West Virginia state lawmaker, steered the organization through the already-in-the-works merger of the Beach Chamber and the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce into AMPLIFY Clearwater. In March 2020, when AMPLIFY Clearwater was still in its infancy as an organization, COVID-19  hit, bringing with it financial struggles and uncertain times to businesses across the country.
 
AMPLIFY jumped into action, connecting members with government agencies, helping navigate relief programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and CARES Act, preparing a guide for reopening businesses in the wake of COVID and giving ongoing updates on the federal, state and local response to the pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, we had a real opportunity to prove ourselves as a new organization and step in and help small businesses,” Payne says. “I think I worked more hard in my first six months here than I did in my entire life, which is saying something when you have held public office. It was a chance to  prove ourselves to our members. And our members stayed loyal. They continued to pay their dues at a time when the money could have gone elsewhere.”

In a recent interview on AMPLIFY’s upcoming Feb. 10 annual meeting, Payne talked about the successes of the reunited chamber, looked to the year ahead and discussed how the group will commemorate a 100-year legacy that began with the establishment of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce in 1922.
 
“One-hundred years of serving the business community, that is our legacy,” Payne says. “At the time the organization was created, we were one business community. Now we are again. We have come full circle, from one organization to two, back to one again.”

One voice for business

In the late 1990s, the Beach Chamber broke off to focus on issues like tourism and the development of the beach. Roughly 25 years later, the beach economy is going strong. Tourism in Pinellas County, as measured by room occupancy rates and tourism tax revenues, hit record-levels despite the pandemic. Clearwater Beach has been named No. 1 beach in America multiple times by online travel research company Tripadvisor.

With the beach economy thriving, Payne says the two chambers largely shared the same issues -- taxation, transportation, regulation, and employment -- and “the need for two separate entities really waned.”

“When you have two competing organizations in a community the size of ours, that becomes a challenge,” she says. “It’s a drain on resources; so certainly from a financial perspective our organization has become very solid, very steady. As a merged organization, we have ended every year with a surplus. Our members have really rallied around supporting the organization and the merger, even through a pandemic.”

The unified front carries more weight advocating on business issues, Payne says.

“It certainly allows us to be that one voice for business instead of having competing voices from organizations that are potentially not necessarily aligned on certain issues,” she says. “It allows us to come together and have a stronger voice when we speak on behalf of business, whether in Tallahassee, at the City Council, or in front of the [Pinellas County] County Commission, it’s noticed and it's effective because we are a much larger, unified organization. Our members are aligned and our issues are aligned. That brings with it the opportunity for influence.”

Payne points to an example from the 2021 state legislative session. A bill proposed in Tallahassee would have required Florida to seek a federal exemption to change the lights at signalized mid-block pedestrian crosswalks from flashing yellow to red. If the federal government rejected the exemption, which AMPLIFY Clearwater expected, those mid-block crosswalks would have to be removed and pedestrians would need to cross at the nearest traffic signal. While other chambers said it was not a business issue, AMPLIFY Clearwater opposed the bill and helped defeat it.

“Pinellas County is number 2 in the state for the number of those types of crosswalks,” Payne says. “Think about the amount of them on the Pinellas Trail and along the beach. When you think about getting residents and visitors safely to our businesses, it is a business issue. And taking crosswalks off the beach would have a negative impact on visitors. That’s an example of where we rose to an occasion when  others did not see it as a business issue. If it affects our visitors and affects our residents, it is a business issue, and we are willing to step out and advocate.”

New initiatives

Payne says to fully promote and support local businesses, AMPLIFY is committed to being an inclusive and collaborative organization that invites all voices to the conversation. The focus on diversity and inclusion includes a program where utility company and AMPLIFY member Duke Energy sponsors memberships for 10 local diverse small businesses that are minority, LGBTQ, disability, or veteran-owned and new to the chamber group.

“It gives these businesses that have not historically been part of the chamber an opportunity to tap our resources and our connections in the community,” Payne says. “It really puts our focus on diversity and inclusion issues that we have not historically been a part of quite frankly.”

At AMPLIFY’s 2021 awards ceremony, one of those businesses won the minority-owned business award.

Duke Energy funds the memberships through another new AMPLIFY initiative -- a  new 501c3 nonprofit foundation established in the wake of COVID.
 
Payne says that foundation opens up new grant funding and program opportunities and allows AMPLIFY Clearwater to have a greater positive impact on the local economy.

“If you look nationwide at chamber trends, foundations are kind of the future of our type of organizations,” she says. “They allow flexibility from a grants standpoint, from a funding standpoint, both with our members and with other opportunities to fund programming and initiatives that are not traditionally funded under a 501c6 structure, which is what AMPLIFY is.”

Looking ahead, AMPLIFY is working through that foundation, and alongside partners such as  Pinellas County Economic Development, on a major project year. They plan to open a shared visitor center and business incubator in a leased building off the Courtney Campbell Causeway previously eyed solely for a visitor center.

“It’s a perfect location for a visitor center,” Payne says. “It’s right there on the right side of the road and it captures the audience as they come across the Courtney Campbell from Tampa. But I struggled with opening another visitor center when we already operate three on the beach. While it supports our visitor and our tourism industry, I struggled with a fourth visitor center with no additional connection to our organization and what we do to support business. 

“In a brainstorming session with Dr. Johnson (Pinellas County Economic Development Director Cynthia Johnson), the idea was born to not just make this space a visitor and welcome center but to create a business incubator space. We see this as the perfect intersection to meet the needs of those who are visiting and those who could become future residents, employers, business owners and operators. So many of us who are now residents of our community were once visitors to our community. So we see this as a wonderful opportunity to say, ‘Welcome, we hope you have a good time in our community, if you really love it and want to come back to bring a business or start a business, we have all these resources to help you.’ We want to use it as a recruiting tool so we are really excited about that. That is going to be the big project for 2022. It really brings another level of service to our business community that does not exist in north Pinellas County.”

Celebrating 100 years

AMPLIFY Clearwater’s annual meeting is scheduled for Feb. 10. Payne says the group’s approximately 900 members will reflect on the successes of the last few years and look back at 100 years of chamber history in Clearwater.

AMPLIFY is also regularly highlighting the contributions of past chamber chairpersons in its member newsletter.

First up in the January newsletter is Henry Wright Bivins, the first chair of the Greater Clearwater Chamber of Commerce in 1922, who also helped organize the Bank of Clearwater.

For more information, please follow this link:  AMPLIFY Clearwater
 

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.