2010-05-28 / Columnists

It’s My Turn

Have You Called The Chamber Of Commerce?
Commentary By Vince Castellano

This year’s Bravest and Finest Luncheon. This year’s Bravest and Finest Luncheon. Vincent S. Castellano is a member of Community Board 14 since 1989 and was chairman from 1991 to 1995. He is a former 1st Vice President, Treasurer and Director of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce. He resigned from the Chamber in 2006.

Have you called the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce? The phones are disconnected due to lack of payment. Have you tried the website? It has been shut down. Have you gone to their office? No one is there, they haven’t paid rent for months and only the forbearance of the landlord has prevented an embarrassing eviction.

The Rockaway Chamber of Commerce is now more than just irrelevant, it has performed the ultimate magic trick. They have made themselves disappear.

The Chamber has no members, no agenda, and no money. Aside from that, everything is just fine.

Rockaway needs an effective and independent Chamber of Commerce. At one time we had one. What happened to it?

Six years ago, the executive director of the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce, Liz Sulik, resigned to take a job at Peninsula Hospital. At the time, the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce had an annual budget over $100,000, a paid membership approaching 250, and could afford a full time executive director at more than $30,000 per year. They were in the newspaper every week. They started the Kite Festival. They built Tribute Park. There was genuine excitement about the organization. People came to the Chamber with money in hand because they wanted to participate in an exciting organization with a visible pro-Rockaway agenda.

Today that is all gone. They even lost the Kite Festival.

Yes, they sponsor the Bravest & Finest Luncheon but it is a mere shadow of its former self. It doesn’t even generate business for Rockaway. In effect, the Bravest & Finest Luncheon exports Rockaway money to Howard Beach. If the Chamber is going to sponsor only one event per year, shouldn’t they be importing money into Rockaway instead?

And to be fair, the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce is also mentioned when Brown’s Hardware does their annual holiday lighting in December. Six years ago the Chamber flooded Beach 116 Street with holiday lights. Now Brown’s Hardware sponsors a holiday tree lighting at their own time and expense and generously shares the credit with the Chamber.

In the last 12 months, where else have you seen the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce? What do they advocate? What is their agenda? When was the last meeting? Does anybody belong to the organization? Has the Rockaway Chamber of Commerce been reduced to just a name?

The support from the Rockaway community is virtually non-existent. To pay the bills, board members often lend money to the Chamber to keep it running. Just how deep is the financial hole? Since there are no audited financial reports, no one really knows. Truth be told, there has not been a financial audit for many years.

When an organization has no members, who does the board represent besides themselves? In fact, how does a board get elected when no one can vote? Is it still a community based organization when there is no community? Or, is it the private property of the board of directors? Without members, who is the constituency?

Six years ago the Chamber was king of the hill, now they are in the witness protection program.

What happened? What went wrong? Where did all the money go?

What I find most disturbing is that no one on the Chamber Board of Directors is asking these questions. Has the board fallen victim to some kind of collective delusion that they have managed the Chamber well over the last six years? The same people say the same things every month for six years, meanwhile things have gotten so bad the entire membership of the Chamber can fit into a phone booth.

At the moment the board is distracted. The president has resigned and no one on this unelected board wants the job.

The Rockaway Development & Revitalization Corp. (RDRC) has offered to “stabilize” the disintegrating Chamber with office space, phones, even staff support. Some believe this is the solution to the problems of the Chamber. There are those on the Chamber board who believe this offer by RDRC is actually a transition to a “takeover” which will end the independence of the Chamber forever. RDRC’s offer has already been rebuffed more than once, but with seven votes on the Chamber board, RDRC can afford to be patient. The Chamber and RDRC both represent the Rockaway business community, each in its own way. But why do we need two organizations if they are both controlled by the same seven people?

I believe the Rockaway community is entitled to an independent voice in public affairs. The Chamber is supposed to be that voice, yet the community does not support the current leadership of the Chamber.

With a six year track record like this, perhaps more than just the president should resign.

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