News Pensacola

State of the Black Chamber

March 27, 2012

What is the Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce? What does it do? Who does it? These were some of the questions explored during a meeting earlier this month.

According to the its chairman, George Hawthorne, the chamber is an organization in a state of change.

“We’re in the process, we’re moving,” said Hawthorne on Monday.

The chamber chairman said that he preferred not to discuss specifics until the GCAACC completed its transformation. He said the organization has been in a state of transition for a few months.

“When we get that done we’ll turn the lights on and let the sunshine in,” Hawthorne said.

On March 16, Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds held a public meeting to discuss the African-American chamber. Hawthorne learned of the meeting through the press and was tossed from the meeting when he attempted to speak.

Jerralds questioned whether the GCAACC—under Hawthorne’s direction—was adequately serving the African-American business community. The city councilman is not a member of the chamber, and has since said he does not intend on joining.

The city councilman—along with some members of the public in attendance at the meeting—wondered aloud about how active the chamber was and who was a member of the chamber. When Councilman Jerralds asked if anyone connected with the GCAACC was in attendance, Derrick Stromas stepped forward.

Stromas identified himself as a “volunteer-apprentice” with the Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce. The young man repeatedly wiped the sweat beading on his brow and said that, since Hawthorne was no longer present in the meeting, he didn’t know if he could answer the questions being directed his way.

“So, now I’m left looking at nobody,” Stromas said, adding that there “needs to be elders that step up” and that “whatever I can do to help, I’ll be right there.”

The young man told those in the meeting that he felt there was a “communication problem” that is “based on dollars.” He said he wanted to be involved in whatever came next for the chamber.

“Something needs to be done,” Stromas said, “because I would like to be a part of something that effects the future.”

Contacted on the phone as the meeting continued, Hawthorne identified Stromas as a chamber board member. Since the meeting, the GCAACC chairman has said that he could not provide the names of any other chamber members—which apparently fluctuate between 20 and 200 businesses—or board members.

“Let me talk to my board before I start revealing that information,” Hawthorne said.

The GCAACC chairman said Monday that the organization is “revamping” and that he should be able to share more about its future direction—including budgetary specifics and who sits on its board—later this week.

“We are revamping right now, when it’s all revamped I’ll gladly reveal the whole thing,” Hawthorne said. “—we’re doing a whole other strategy.”

The chairman said that the chamber is in the process of bringing new board members onto the scene. He said this is necessary because some current board members are not fulfilling their duties.

“Basically, they’re not participating like they should be,” Hawthorne said, adding that he was tired of managing the chamber’s affairs on his own with “everyone sitting around wanting to be board members.”

In addition to changing up its board of directors, Hawthorne is also planning on steering the CGAACC in a privately-funded direction. The organization is already operating as such, in that it has yet to accept funds from Pensacola or Escambia County for the current fiscal year.

“We’re working that way now, yes,” Hawthorne said.

During the March 16 meeting at Pensacola City Hall, members of the local black community discussed the state of the area’s African American business community and what might be done to facilitate better networking and lead to more doors being opened for minority-owned operations.

Audra Carter, of AC Advertising, told those gathered that she felt that black-owned businesses often competed against each other, operating as though the success of one meant the failure of the other. She said that the community needed to “get over that and hold our brothers accountable to doing the right thing.”

Rodney Scott, who works for the Studer Group as an accountant, said that he had attempted to get on the GCAACC’s board in the past, but had not been accepted. He characterized the chamber board as “non existent” and said he felt Jerralds’ meeting was useful but only the beginning of a longer-term conversation.

“This meeting is about a lot of things,” Scott told the people in attendance. “I feel like I’ve been to church, I feel like I’ve been to school, but I still haven’t heard a direction or a game plan.”

In response to Jerralds’ somewhat loaded premise—Is there a Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce?—Georgia Blackmon said that a chamber is needed, but it’s needed in ways it has yet to realize.

“I think that you need a chamber,” she said. “I just think you need the chamber to do what it’s suppose to do.”

Blackmon, the owner of Gathering Awareness and Book Center, was instrumental in first starting the GCAACC. As the group’s first secretary-treasurer, she was a founding member in May of 1999.

As the chamber evolved, Blackmon—and others—became disillusioned with its direction.

“Basically, eight of us walked away,” she said at the March 16 meeting.

When contacted this week, Blackmon declined to comment about the chamber. In the earlier meeting, the GCAACC founding member expressed a desire to have a chamber that served the African-American community.

“I’m 70 and we’re losing ground,” Blackmon said at the meeting. “And I hate to see it because I’ve got five grandsons living here.”

Though he would not provide any membership information and said that the Gulf Coast African American Chamber of Commerce has not yet met this quarter, Hawthorne did say that the chamber would be meeting soon. The chairman said last week that the board would meet by July.

Hawthorne said that Pensacola in general, and the African-American business community specifically, is on the “brink of greatness.” He characterized Councilman Jerralds as having a “notion that everybody is a racist” and said the official is attempting a power grab.

Jerralds has said that he wants no roll in a reorganized chamber. Hawthorne said that he believes that he can best lead the GCAACC forward, and invited those that disagree to join the organization and vote him out as a regular matter of business in December.

“I’d love to have a thousand members join the chamber and tell me to get going,” Hawthorne said.

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