The GCAACC and the ‘New Direction’

A faction of Pensacola’s African-American business community appears intent on creating a new minority chamber of commerce. Jackie Miles, a board member of the existing Gulf Coast African-American Chamber of Commerce, joined Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds last night in calling for a new organization.

“Just like you have a tree branch—if the branch isn’t working you cut it off and move one,” Miles told a group gathered at Pensacola City Hall to discuss the state of the chamber.

This was the second meeting Councilman Jerralds hosted on the subject. He has described the current chamber—the GCAACC—as ineffective, and urged the local black business community to create a body that better served them.

“We have some things we want to do,” Jerralds told those assembled for the meeting. “We control our own destiny. We’ve got to take it up.”

The existing GCAACC is headed up by George Hawthorne, who Jerralds tossed out of his initial meeting on the chamber. Since that time, Hawthorne has said he planned to announce an updated vision for the chamber, as well as a list of the organization’s board members. More recently, the chamber head has not returned calls asking for comment on Jerralds’ approach.

Jerralds has stated in the past that he is not a businessman, nor a member of the GCAACC. Last night marked the first time the councilman was accompanied by someone associated with the existing chamber.

Miles, editor of the Pensacola Voice, said that the GCAACC last met in November 2011 and that the gathering was “not necessarily a board meeting.”

“Since then there has been no meeting,” she said. “There has been no effort.”

The newspaper editor said she wished to move forward.

“If you have you own agenda I ask that you leave it and don’t apply it,” she told the group at city hall. “It is my hope and desire that we can come together to make this an effective organization.”

Jerralds and Miles explained that the new chamber would be using the GCAACC’s 501(3)(c) and, at least initially, the existing group’s bylaws. Audience members raised questions about the legality of such a move, and also wondered if that meant the new organization would be incurring the GCAACC’s debt.

“I think these questions should be asked of the past executive director—yes, there were debts incurred,” Miles said.

Jerralds clarified that the group would be using the same 501(3)(c) in order to maintain “continuity” and to allow for record sharing—“we don’t need to reinvent the wheel”—but made a clear distinction when it came to the subject of debt: “We’re moving forward in a new direction with a new group.”

Jerralds also noted the new organization would need to approach the city of Pensacola regarding $10,000 that is currently set aside for the GCAACC. The existing chamber has yet to request this year’s funding, a move Hawthorne had said was designed to allow the group to move in a privately-funded direction.

“They haven’t spent a penny,” Councilman Jerralds said. “Somebody better make a move.”

Last night’s meeting was also the first time a voice associated with the Florida Black Chamber of Commerce injected itself into the conversation. Eugene Franklin, instrumental in starting the initial GCAACC and now head of the state chamber, noted that the existing Gulf Coast chamber was “one of the chambers that we supported” and said he didn’t see a conflict with another minority chamber in the area.

“In some cities we have two or three chambers of commerces representing different communities. There is no autonomy on chambers of commerce,” Franklin said. “There is no issue when it comes to starting up another chamber in Pensacola. You’ve got an east side, a west side, North, South, you’ve got a lot of options.”

Jerralds also took the opportunity to minimize the rift between Hawthorne and himself. He said the pair’s public back-and-forth—characterized by each summing the other up as a “fool”—had been overblown in the press.
“There never was a struggle between George and I,” the councilman said, later explaining that he was still open to working with the existing chamber— “If they’re here, we’ll work with them, if not, we’ll move ahead without them … If they want to come and play, we’ll play with’em. If they don’t, we’re not playing that game.”

Jerralds and Miles slated another meeting on the subject for May 16 at 5 p.m. During that meeting, the new organization will map out an organizational chart—choosing officers—and set a regular meeting schedule.

The councilman told those gathered that, as a city councilman, he would be able to provide a meeting place at Pensacola City Hall until the new group made other arrangements. He also said once the group got up and running, the direction would depend on its members.

“They can’t just talk about it and dream about it,” Jerralds said.