As with the businesses they represent, the coronavirus has made life difficult for local chambers of commerce around the country, including the Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce.
What began as a typical year for the island’s chamber was turned upside down by COVID-19 and the wide-ranging effect it’s had on travel, public interaction and other aspects of what had been normal life. Plus, as with businesses and other nonprofits, including chambers of commerce, the pandemic’s economic impact has affected staffing, hours of operation and more.
The pandemic forced the cancelation of annual fundraising events for Marco’s chamber: the Marco Island Seafood and Music Festival, the Business and Community Expo, Glory of the Grape and the golf tournament. “The result was the loss of revenue the organization counts on to fund off-season operations,” said Dianna Dohm, the Marco chamber’s Executive Director.
“When everything shut down in March, all those things were canceled,” she explained. “When the government came out with its PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) program, I was very excited because there were three of us on staff and I thought, ‘Okay, this will keep us alive and replace the income from the fundraisers, only to find out that 501(c)(6)s were not eligible.’ That really put a crimp in us.”
The Paycheck Protection Program provided Small Business Administration loans to enable small and tribal businesses, and nonprofits, such as 501(c)(3)s, to keep workers employed as the pandemic ravaged the economy. Although nonprofit, chambers of commerce have a 501(c)(6) tax-exempt classification from the Internal Revenue Service because their purpose is to promote the common business of their members, 501(c)(3) is the classification for nonprofits the IRS view as charitable organizations, such as food banks and arts groups.
Dohm worked with the Florida Chamber of Commerce in its lobbying effort to have local chambers added to PPP eligibility, along with writing letters to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, the program’s creator.
“The responses we received were that they had to look across the board, that they only had so much money and who was going to get the money was the actual businesses and the 501(c)(3)s that contribute a lot more back into the community were eligible,” said Dohm.
The lack of safety meant the chamber could no longer continue meeting payroll for its three-person staff, which also included long-time employees Donna Niemczyk, the office manager-event coordinator, and Katie O’Hara, the Director of Sales and Marketing. As a result, in March, Dohm had to lay off Niemczyk and O’Hara and limit herself to just 20 hours a week.
It was the first layoff in the chamber’s 42-year history.
The aftermath saw Dohm focus on how to assist businesses in this challenging environment. She funneled information about PPP, her communications with Rubio and other important matters to the chambers more than 400 members. Dohm also surveyed the island’s restaurants to determine how they were doing and what they were doing to stay afloat, whether it be reduced hours or shifting to only take-out and deliveries only.
Another first for the Marco Chamber occurred when Dohm found herself forced to take the difficult step of asking the membership for donations. The request was made in a letter dated July 1.
“I said that we lost over $70,000 in event and fundraising income and that while we know it has been difficult for businesses out there, any donation to the chamber would be greatly appreciated,” she said. “We feel we should be there for the business community, so it was hard to ask the business community to help us.”
Marco’s business community rose to the occasion and met the need.
“It was just such an outpouring of love and support,” said Dohm. “It was amazing. Every time someone sent us a check, it brought tears to my eyes. We can’t thank the community enough because I’m not sure we would still have our doors open if it wasn’t for that.”
The chamber’s office, which includes a visitor center, closed in mid-March, but reopened on June 1, for 16 hours a week. Dohm asked Niemczyk and O’Hara to return on a part-time basis, due to limited funds. Niemczyk accepted the offer, but O’Hara decided to retire.
“She’s been with the chamber for 10 years and she’s done a fabulous job bringing the chamber into the 21st Century,” Dohm said of Katie. “She felt this would be a good time for her to retire, even though it was a little earlier than she had initially planned.
“Ironically, this past summer would have been much bleaker for Marco’s restaurants, resorts and short-term rentals if it weren’t for coronavirus-related restrictions on gatherings,” she said.
“With Miami and the East Coast of Florida being completely shut down, when we opened up to 25%, that really helped our hotels and our condo markets,” explained Dohm. “The hotels were extremely busy during weekends.”
Restaurants at the resorts were closed over the summer, she added, which benefitted Marco’s independent eateries.
“As much as people were a little concerned with the number of visitors from the East Coast, it really did help our businesses on the island.”
The chamber’s visitor center reopened October 1, but due to the recent spike in coronavirus infections, it’s currently closed to visitors. However, service is still being provided there by talking to people through the front door and of course, over the phone. If brochures are required, an information packet can be prepared and left outside the front door.
Lifting the community’s spirits during these trying times has also been a concern, as evidenced by the drive-in movie the chamber held recently at Veterans Community Park. The event proved so popular that a second drive-in movie has been planned. “Elf,” starring Will Ferrell, which was screened on December 11th.
“It was so wonderful when we did it three weeks ago, to see people coming out with their cars and their pick-up trucks and tailgating, and the kids buying popcorn and watching the movie,” said Dohm. “That’s one of the things that we wanted to do for the community.”
However, one annual event the chamber won’t be holding, due to the pandemic, is the Souper Bowl. Set for February of next year, the event is a fundraiser for the Leadership Marco Scholarship Fund which provides scholarships for local students graduating from area high schools.
The Souper Bowl sees people buy bowls, hand-painted by local students that they can then fill with soup for Marco-area residents. There’s also a silent auction of bowls hand–painted by local artists.
“We usually get 500 people tasting soups from across the island,” said Dohm. “It’s one of my favorite events because it incorporates not only the business community, but also the kids of the island the community comes out to participate.”
Also on hiatus, are the After Five networking events the chamber holds for members and the public. Dohm predicted that it and other events probably won’t return until after the first quarter of 2021.
Her outlook for 2021 is “extremely hopeful,” especially given the apparent likelihood a coronavirus vaccine will be available.
“I’m hoping that after that, we get back to normal. By normal I mean we can open the chamber and we can welcome our guests,” explained Dohm. “I’m hoping that with all of the co-marketing with Paradise Coast, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, more people will realize that they want to start traveling and come down and visit us down here. I’m hoping that after the first quarter, we see the sun shining and that we get a lot of our old ways of networking with our businesses back.”
The Marco Island Area Chamber of Commerce is located at 1102 N. Collier Boulevard. The office is open 10 AM to 2 PM, Monday through Friday. For more information, visit marcoislandchamber.org or call the office at 239-394-7549, or Dianna Dohm at 239-331-0908.