Startup Bluffton chamber seeking members, public funding

gmartin@islandpacket.comMarch 12, 2012 

Bluffton has outgrown the chamber of commerce that serves it, according to the head of a rival organization that intends to ask the town for funding.

The Greater Bluffton Chamber and Convention Visitors Bureau was formed recently to help businesses network and market their services, according to interim chairwoman Shellie Hodges. She added that the group plans a "formal kickoff" in late April.

"Bluffton has grown up, and we need our own chamber now," Hodges said. "It's our goal to be the face of Bluffton."

The new organization registered in January with the S.C. Secretary of State's office as a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization. The group is "completely independent," Hodges said, and not associated with businessman Skip Hoagland, who recently formed a bureau to promote businesses on Hilton Head Island.

Hodges said her group will apply for accommodations-tax money from the town of Bluffton as early as this fall.

The town already gives accommodations-tax money -- nearly $58,000 in 2011, according to Shirley Freeman, Bluffton's director of finance -- to the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, its designated marketing organization.

It will be difficult for the fledgling group to compete with the larger chamber for that funding, said Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, though state law allows municipalities to select more than one organization as a marketing agent.

"They're reaching out to a group that maybe feels they're not well-represented by the bigger (chamber)," Sulka said. "Good for someone believing in Bluffton enough to start something like this."

The Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce also considers Bluffton to be part of its territory.

Hodges owns the Bluffton Business Club, which is a member of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton chamber.

She maintained that her new group would not compete with that chamber for members, although it is offering a 10 percent discount on its $250 annual dues for businesses that are already members of another chamber.

"We're not looking to take away from any other chamber," she said. "I think there's room for both of us."

Hilton Head Island-Bluffton chamber president Bill Miles was unconvinced of the need for a new chamber.

"I think it's an interesting approach," Miles said. "The trend for chambers nationwide right now is to merge and combine versus open separate ones."

Hodges said her chamber already has close to 20 members, and it's hoping to recruit more through word of mouth and social media.

"We're looking for pioneers," she said, adding the group already has a nine-member board of directors.

One member of the local business community to already sign up for the new chamber is Rob Lembo, who owns Triad Design Group in Bluffton.

Lembo also is a member of the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton chamber, but said he welcomed the opportunity to become better connected to the area.

"Any networking is good networking," Lembo said.

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

The Greater Bluffton Chamber and Convention Visitors Bureau

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