Hardeeville council drops contract with chamber

gsmith@islandpacket.comJanuary 7, 2013 

The Hardeeville City Council has severed its four-year relationship with the Greater Hardeeville Chamber of Commerce and will now rely on another chamber to promote its businesses and attractions.

The Hardeeville chamber, dogged by rumors of mishandling money and the temporary loss of its tax-exempt status last year, depended on the contract with the city for about 20 percent of its annual operating revenue, said Matt Clark, the chamber's volunteer president. The chamber employs one staff member.

The Jasper County Chamber of Commerce will become Hardeeville's designated marketing organization, a distinction that will result in about $15,000 a year in funding, most of which is to advertise events and businesses in the city.

The Hardeeville chamber will continue to operate, despite rumors that it would fold, Clark said.

"If anything, it's going to free us up to be able to concentrate a whole lot more on the things that we need to be concentrating on," Clark said, referring to efforts to attract industry to the city. The chamber is also fighting to reduce property-tax and business-license rates, he said.

The chamber lost its nonprofit status for nearly a year because it failed to file paperwork required of 501(c)(3) groups, Clark said. Its status was reinstated in March.

And in spring of 2001, the then-president of the Hardeeville chamber said it wasn't properly accounting for some expenditures and had no money for an audit. City Council decided not to help pay for one.

"There was a very vicious rumor concerning the chamber administration at that time about embezzlement and fraud," Clark said. "(Internal) audits did not show any sign of that or raise any red flags. But the rumor still hurt us."

Hardeeville residents and business people, particularly hotel owners, wanted the Jasper County chamber to take over the job, said Mayor Bronco Bostick, who cast the tie-breaking vote to award the contract to the county chamber.

"They wanted to see their money be used wisely, to be used to promote the Hardeeville businesses," said Bostick, referring to revenue from the accommodations tax charged on overnight lodging that funds the contract.

"(The Hardeeville chamber) has had some problems," Bostick said. "In order to run a chamber, you have to have experience. It takes time. I just don't think they're there yet."

The Jasper County chamber, which has two employees, plans to expand its reach into Hardeeville and will meet with business people in the city to discuss how best to serve them.

"Nobody knows better than the businesses ... what they need," said Jasper County chamber president Marty Sauls.

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