OT looks at the recent political and legal controversies surrounding the historic business advocacy group.
One key to understanding the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce in the modern era, and how it conducts business, is to look at the contrast between the leadership’s favorable treatment of disgraced former City Commissioner Scott Maddox and their recent censure of current City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow, who has called for accountability and ethics reform.
Despite City Commissioner Scott Maddox and his political accomplice Paige Carter-Smith pleading guilty to a raft of federal corruption charges in 2019, the Chamber never moved to take any action against Maddox, someone who they had lauded and supported during the very years he was engaged in corruption.
In examining the Chamber’s recent history and gauging it’s relevance to Tallahassee’s future success, there is no better starting point than the Chamber’s relationship with Maddox…
Scott Maddox stood at a crossroads in June 2016.
J.T. Burnette, a high-flying entrepreneur developer and political accomplice–who Maddox would have to testify against five years later–had a lot riding on which path Maddox chose.
Maddox had been a shoe-in when running for local office races for nearly a generation, but his statewide bids had gone nowhere.
Burnette, a hotel developer, with substantial interests centered in Tallahassee, didn’t mind Maddox’s political failures. As someone who donated prodigious amounts of money to local candidates, Burnette needed Scott Maddox right where he was: as a city commissioner.
But for some reason, Maddox had decided to run for Superintendent of Leon County Schools. It could have been because the position paid six figures, much more than the city commission. It had oversight over a monstrous number of contracts and budgets.
Burnette hedged his bets and still gave Maddox $1000 for his superintendent run.
Early in Maddox’s campaign, political power broker Drew Jones, long-time John Dailey Campaign Manager, texted Maddox concerns from local business leaders that he should reconsider the school’s superintendent campaign. Maddox responded, “Can’t do it brother, onward and upward.”
Jones’ firm, VancoreJones, has a long history of entanglement in local government in ways that flirt with impropriety; most recently, Tallahassee Reports found they had failed to register as lobbyists to local government.
Maddox was apologetic to Jones but left no doubt he had put the right people in the right places to appease the concerned businessmen: “I got Rick (Fernandez), Reese (Goad), Wayne (Tedder), and Ben (Pingree). My work here is done.”
Audaciously, Maddox, during his attacks on incumbent Superintendent Jackie Pons, lauded City of Tallahassee procurement practices, stating “at the City of Tallahassee if we do an RFP, or request for proposal or a bid, it’s a very structured process. It is structured in such a way that it is very difficult for someone to manipulate it. I think we need those types of controls in the Leon County Schools.” Yet, just a year later Maddox would be secretly recorded by Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in a Las Vegas Strip Club, boasting about his ability to direct lucrative public contracts for bribes, a charge that he later pled guilty to.
But there were a couple of obstacles to Maddox’s campaign. Even weakened, Pons was on track to raise well over $350,000. Also, Rocky Hanna had joined the race as an independent candidate, normally an immediate disqualifier in a town passionate about its political parties—but not in this case.
Hanna was on track to raise over a quarter-million dollars. He had resigned from his job at the district school administrative offices and was campaigning like a maniac. Candidate qualifying was just days away.
Should Maddox stay on the city commission or continue as a candidate in an increasingly unpredictable race for Superintendent?
In either a complete coincidence or as part of a well-planned political dance, a letter suddenly arrived in the inboxes of Tallahassee media outlets from a group of about a half-dozen stalwarts from the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce.
As if engaged in some sort of prolonged mating ritual, Maddox and the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce had gotten used to taking cues from one another. During roughly the same period, Maddox gave what can only be described as a fraternity beer keg-stand speech about the glory of the Chamber’s mission to court JetBlue with former Chamber President Ron Sachs. The effort failed to bring the carrier to Tallahassee, despite untold thousands being spent in public dollars for out of town travel, including pricy steak dinners in Manhattan.
The letter from the Chamber was likely driven by public relations barker Sachs, who often handled these issues for the Chamber and was one of the signatories. The letter breathlessly begged Maddox not to leave the city commission:
“As business leaders who care about the growth, prosperity, and wellbeing of the Capital City, we humbly ask you to continue your elected service as a City Commissioner…. While we believe your leadership and management experience would be an asset to the school district, and we know that you would make an outstanding superintendent – at this juncture, we need your pro-business, fiscally prudent voice on the City Commission.”
As if on cue, when asked about the letter, Maddox told WCTV:
“We have a lot of things pending like Jet Blue and a very high crime rate that we’ve gotta get a hold of, but the bottom line is this has got to be a decision that’s right for my family as well. So, I’m going to talk to them, pray about it and then make a decision.”
Other business titans signing the Maddox letter included Thomas Howell, Ferguson CEO Winston K. Howell; Capital City Bank CEO Bill Smith; Moore Bass CEO Rick Moore; and MARPAN Recycling CEO Kim Williams.
The letter was, not surprisingly, shameless in its motivation: to ensure business as usual.
What did some of that “business” look like? It included using the City of Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) money for inappropriate purposes. Sachs, a multimillionaire, received a $5,800 grant in 2013 and a $6,000 grant in 2017 from CRA to upgrade the perfectly good façade and interiors of his very stylish downtown offices in a building presently on the market for $1.3 million. Sachs was at least consistent in 2016 when he advocated for controversial mega-lobbyist Brian Ballard getting a half-million dollars in tax breaks from the CRA for his new $20 million digs on the corner of Park and Monroe streets.
The CRA program was developed to rehab blighted or slum areas but became controversial locally because of this type of abuse.
After receiving the Chamber’s love letter, Maddox relented (or breathed a sigh of relief) and acceded to the request to stay on the city commission. The $200,000-plus in his campaign committee account was moved to the 2020 Senate race for term-limited Bill Montford’s seat, a race Maddox would never get to run.
Maddox jumped back into the race for his city commission seat against five other challengers, but only two had a serious chance of winning.
AMWAT Moving Company CEO Gloria Pugh was smart enough to see the handwriting on the wall and ended her campaign.
Rick Minor was a bigger problem, as he had raised a boatload of money and was a former chairman of the Leon County Democratic Party. Minor had worked for years in the trenches to get in position to win an elected seat; he was so close he could taste it.
Maddox would have to use his considerable sales and political skills to clear the decks via a phone call to Minor.
Text messages from that time show that Burnette was anxious:
“Did you talk to Rick Minor?” Burnette texted.
“Yes, he is deciding tonight,” Maddox replied.
“Nice work,” Burnette said.
The next morning, Minor withdrew from the race. He moved his money-bomb ahead to run in 2018, winning a county commission seat.
But the Chamber had their man: Scott Maddox!
Tallahassee’s history would never be the same.
Beth (Kirkland) Cicchetti, who heads up the Gadsden County Development Council, recently said the economic development community is extremely tight-knit, and she alone has around 500 contacts. In other words, news travels in economic development circles–and it travels fast.
The close (some would say insular) communications in such circles may explain why just seven months after the Chamber propped up Commissioner Maddox, what seemed like a benign suggestion would lead to a proverbial explosion within the city’s public/private economic makeup.
Mayor Andrew Gillum, appearing before the Editorial Board of the Tallahassee Democrat, suggested that the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County (EDC) and the Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce (Chamber) split up.
In the Democrat interview, Gillum called the area’s record of attracting new business “pretty pitiful”—a criticism leveled just as stakeholders were increasingly focusing on how to spend $90 million in Blueprint sales tax receipts aimed at funding infrastructure and economic development that would become available at the end of 2019.
The chairwomen of the respective organizations, Cecilia Homison and Kathy Bell, both disagreed with the mayor’s assessment. Homison preferred to wait for the recommendations of a task force that the Chamber itself had appointed to evaluate the organizational structure of the two entities.
But it was Sachs, again, whose sycophancy stood out from the rest:
“I also intend to withdraw my pledge of sponsorship dollars or other support, financial or through in-kind services, as part of this resignation.”
Within a week, Homison, the gracious CEO of powerhouse First Commerce Credit Union, was made the scapegoat of the increasingly ugly soap opera within the establishment. Bell, the chamber’s chairwoman, had a 180-degree attitude change and went after Homison. The optics were brutal.
It does not take a huge leap of imagination to realize the ugliness taking place in the Tallahassee/Leon County economic development sphere was playing out before a huge, influential audience, both statewide and in other states as well.
The dysfunctional display did nothing to make Tallahassee look like a good place to do business.
For years, the Chamber and the EDC had been operating under the same roof and with the same president and CEO, Sue Dick. Gillum’s concern was that the Chamber’s mission of representing existing business and the EDC’s mission of attracting new business presented a conflict.
Meanwhile, whether coincidence or not, as Mayor Gillum’s comments echoed throughout Tallahassee, former City Manager Rick Fernandez had engaged in a palace coup at City Hall. Fernandez got rid of top staffers, axing departments, and moved staff around in wholesale fashion. These were not the usual personnel moves City Hall was used to.
(From left to right, Former Assistant City Manager Dee Crumpler, VancoreJones Partner Drew Jones, Chamber Member MARPAN Owner Kim Willaims, Chamber Member Steve Evans)
(From left to right, Assistant City Manager Wayne Tedder, City Manager Anita Favors Thompson, County Administrator Vince Long, Chamber Member Steve Evans, Trulieve CEO Kim Rivers, Chamber Member Kim Willaims, Assistant County Administrator Alan Rosenzweig, Convicted Developer JT Burnette, Former Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce Jay Revell, Chamber of Commerce CEO Sue Dick)
To anyone paying attention, the maneuvering to get a crack at the $90 million Blueprint bonanza had been underway for a while, in part from Chamber partisans.
Developers, lobbyists, middlemen and politicians had been feeding on millions of dollars in tax credit deals from the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), which by law is to be devoted to blighted and slum areas–a stipulation that was being completely ignored.
But Blueprint takes a penny of sales tax out of every dollar in Leon County for infrastructure, redevelopment and economic development. As of the end of 2019 that pot of money was estimated to be worth $90 million.
Former Leon County Commissioner Bryan Desloge, who supported the breakup, believed that the Blueprint money did affect the Chamber/EDC split, saying, “This raises the stakes of the game significantly.”
A significant part of the plotting to steer that Blueprint bonanza involved forming the nonprofit Imagine Tallahassee, which was created with private donor money to evaluate, take public input, and influence the intergovernmental Blueprint agency. Critics at the time lambasted Imagine Tallahassee’s hostile takeover of Blueprint 2020’s planning process as an intentional effort to privatize a government agency paid for by public tax dollars.
J.T. Burnette held the initial meeting of Imagine Tallahassee at his home on Tallahassee’s exclusive Bobbin Trace. The March 1, 2013, meeting was with what Tallahassee Magazine described as a diverse group of local movers and shakers.
In fact, the group was so un-diverse that in the late summer of 2013, Kim Rivers (now married to Burnette) kicked off an Imagine Tallahassee steering committee meeting by giving a recap of that year’s Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce’s Annual Retreat.
River’s present company, medical marijuana powerhouse Truelieve, was also a top sponsor of 2021’s recent, and controversial, Chamber Retreat in Amelia Island. The provocative River’s circle within the Chamber remains unbroken, even as her husband was being found guilty on five federal corruption charges.
So, in 2016-2017 the Chamber and its partisans had lots of wheels in motion: the “decision” by Maddox to stay in place; the frantic reshuffling at the EDC, Chamber, and City Hall; and allowing a privately paid group of businesspeople to inject themselves into the Blueprint process at the expense of the average citizen.
What would be the result?
Assuming a community wants to grow substantially, many things have to come together. Much like a U.S. President, the local Chamber probably gets too much credit when growth equals or exceeds expectations and too much blame when the opposite occurs. So, applying an objective evaluation to the Chamber’s performance can be difficult.
One starting point, however, might be the Tallahassee Chamber’s own recent self-evaluation as part of their response to the controversial letter-to-the-editor by City Commissioner Jeremy Matlow, published by the Tallahassee Democrat.
This self-evaluation consisted of two responses to Matlow. The first response was incoherent in its unprofessionalism and served as its own indictment of Chamber leadership. Once again, this letter was likely be quarterbacked by Sachs, an establishment enabler against the public interest, whose style, a futile exercise in thesaurus searching, suffuses the text.
Resembling the vitriol spewed by Sachs in 2019, after City Commissioner Matlow issued his annual performance review of City Manager Reese Goad, the Chamber’s letter oddly seemed to many like a screed against the people of Tallahassee.
In that prior case, involving Goad, Sachs was even retained by the City of Tallahassee to help prepare and place Goad’s response in the Tallahassee Democrat. “it WILL run on Monday” Sachs messaged Goad via e-mail, attaching a final version of the op-ed on October 25th, 2019. This may be why Sachs later deleted it from Facebook, although a record remains:
The next day Sachs accused the people of Tallahassee opposed to public corruption of hacking his Facebook account, a claim so untrue and outrageous that Sachs later deleted that post from Facebook as well.
Despite this unprofessional history of involvement, and despite the Sachs-driven censure letter displaying all the nuance of a rant written by a man at the end of a bender, the Chamber declined to further comment on the letter just two days later.
Instead, starting over, the Chamber issued a second attempt at a response to Matlow – Chamber will not be deterred from job growth mission – that was written by Chamber CEO Sue Dick and Chairman Jay Smith, VP of Ajax Building Company. At one of Maddox’s final meetings as City Commissioner, just twenty-eight days before being indicted, he would recuse himself for the first time from awarding AJAX, a Governance Inc. client, a lucrative $70+ million contract for CMAR services for the forthcoming police station.
The Chamber’s new letter abandoned the prior letter’s indelible psychological portrait of Chamber leadership to discuss the long-term economic record for Greater Tallahassee:
“To be honest, we have work to do in that area. Our job growth has lagged well behind Florida counties that compete with us. In fact, our job-growth rate in the past 20 years is just 6.1%, while most other Florida counties have been three to five times that rate.”
Depending on what was happening in those “other” Florida counties, that 6.1% job-growth rate might look a little better or somewhat worse.
To understand what the Chamber’s numbers really mean, turn to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2020 report, which listed the top 50 metro areas ranked by median wage. For metro areas in Florida’s most populous counties, four ranked in the top 50. Not bad.
However, hold your cocktail. They all are ranked in the bottom eight (Tampa #43, Miami #44, Jacksonville #46, and coming in at the bottom – Orlando #50).
So, coming in at the bottom end of the BLS report shows that Florida workers are paid beans despite Florida growth rates that appear decent.
That would be bad enough, but Tallahassee even trails the four metros in the study on growth. Statistically crappy wages along with an admittedly poor growth rate does not a good economy make. Add in Tallahassee’s mind-blowing income disparity, and the picture gets even worse.
The Chamber letter in response to Commissioner Matlow also admitted to another problem: We also have challenges filling the jobs we have.
In a quandary worthy of experimental math and bad science fiction movies, the Chamber appeared to be claiming that there were not enough jobs to fill demand and yet that the city and county could not fill the job positions available. Can two opposing facts exist without destroying the universe? Apparently.
Former Tallahassee Democrat Publisher and Chamber cheerleader Skip Foster illustrated this odd juxtaposition in a recent Facebook post. He commented on the Bannerman Crossings mixed-use development, built by the developer and tech entrepreneur Rick Kearney.
No doubt Kearney’s project, as Foster wrote, is about as nice as they come. But Foster went on:
“Then I think about all the jobs that are created by these types of retail developments. And all the money that is pumped into our economy. It’s a terrific example of how the private sector is the true engine of our economy. I’m sure some naysayers opposed that development, just like there are folks now who don’t want our economy to expand and job growth to occur. Perhaps they should ask the folks in Bannerman if they think we’d be better off without all those jobs and all those retail options. Spoiler alert: We wouldn’t.”
For years, the Chamber’s claim to fame has been a massive expansion of mixed-use retail, office, restaurant, residential projects, of the kind Maddox championed as well. Yet no one, including Foster, has apparently looked at the actual data over the past twenty years, showing that these jobs will not close the huge income disparity, will not lower Leon County’s crushing poverty rate, and are making Tallahassee look like a Jacksonville/Orlando wannabe–with all of the problems and none of the perks of those cities.
Plus, admittedly, again, according to Messrs. Dick and Smith from the Chamber: We…. have challenges filling the jobs we have.
More hotels? Tallahassee has an ugly, gaping chasm that was supposed to be a luxury hotel downtown, on Calhoun Street, that nobody can finish. Yet, the Chamber recently cheered as the City Commission approved another massive hotel project. And, despite daily headlines regaling massive city corruption, the Chamber saw no problem in turning over prime city property in a no-bid deal with a Texas company on a 3 to 2 vote.
And while it is laudable that Chamber has, after decades, finally acknowledged the massive income gap in Tallahassee, they are a little late to the game.
Figures from the Tallahassee Economy Project showed that the percentage of area residents living below the federal poverty level has hovered near or above 21 percent since 2012. Who has largely controlled Tallahassee’s economic destiny during that time, in part with Maddox’s involvement? The Chamber.
Statewide, that figure averaged around 16 percent in a state not known for being very progressive. Blue Tallahassee running five points behind its red home-state on such a vital economic statistic is, again, optically brutal and staggeringly so to the citizens who struggle in such an atmosphere.
Making it all that much worse is the trend toward a green economy and green jobs. The Chamber will have a hard time addressing this need because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been one of the world’s top climate change deniers as a national economic entity, despite attempting recently to green wash their image. A future that is one of sustainable good management rules the Chamber out partly because of the business practices they think are acceptable.
Each new year that the Chamber and folks like Skip Foster propose the same-old approaches to economic growth, the more they seem like time travelers from the 1980s, come to tell Tallahassee about the past, and each year these old approaches become more dangerous to Tallahassee’s future quality of life.
What would have been the bright shiny apple for the Chamber to have presented was Project Mango, now known to no one’s surprise as the Amazon Fulfillment Center, destined for Mahan Dr. near I-10.
Regardless of whether you support the Amazon project or hate it, the 1000 jobs and attendant economic spinoffs are, on the face of it, the kind of monster fish every economic development agency has dreams of hooking. It is the kind of project Chamber leadership dreams about when they’re not dreaming about mixed use development. (Notwithstanding Amazon’s terrible labor record and other issues.)
Yet even if measured solely on the attracting jobs metric, the Chamber was a nonentity in the Amazon deal. In fact, a recent Tallahassee Democrat report by TaMaryn Waters uncovered the Byzantine manner in which Amazon agreed to locate here.
Bottom line: The Chamber was never in the loop. Nor were the alphabet soup economic development agencies (PLACE, OEV). All of the pristine, four-color brochures, the promotional videos, the stunning websites, and reams of data had nothing to do with Amazon coming here.
All the Chamber ever did to help was support the change to the OEV in 2017 that resulted in an Amazon warehouse being approved by the county without anything approaching a proper environmental study or proper public input.
Ironically, instead, a former executive director of the Economic Development Council of Tallahassee/Leon County, Beth Cicchetti (Kirkland), who no longer works for Leon County, gets the credit. Recall, the EDC was the agency that local business leaders eagerly eliminated in 2016.
Chicchetti, along with well-known eccentric businessman Devoe Moore and County Administrator Vince Long, quietly brought Amazon to Tallahassee. If the quiet part was too skillful in stifling a true debate about the pros and cons of an Amazon warehouse, it can’t be denied that the Chamber’s inability to create these jobs was one of 2021’s sharpest ironies.
Rarely is such a spectacular image of the problem in local government captured in one photo.
(From left to right, Chamber CEO Sue Dick talks to Chamber Board Member and Dailey Campaign Mail Printer Jeremy Cohen, Mayor ‘Chief of Staff’ Thomas Whitley, Former Losing Candidate for County Commission Bryan Desloge, Former Scott Maddox Aide Allie Flemming, Blueprint ELVC Chair and Chamber Member Steve Evans chats with Scott Maddox-ran Governance Inc. Client AJAX President Jay Smith, and Mayor John Dailey. The occasion was a city-funded bus tour of Southside properties for ‘redevelopment’, a practice many have deemed as predatory.)
The 2021 Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce Retreat is over; some would say mercifully, if not briefly. The annual event always generates some controversy, but this year the event was off the charts for lashing out with unprofessional venom. The very weekend after Chamber favorite J.T. Burnette was found guilty of five charges in federal court, people who should’ve felt a sense of responsibility and perhaps even taken the rare opportunity absorb some life lessons were celebrating business as usual—even if, as usual, that business has been lacking in results for average citizens.
In addition to the Chamber Chairman’s personal involvement in the bribery crisis, the Chamber’s 2021 retreat took tens of thousands of dollars from Trulieve, listing them as a platinum sponsor of this years event.
Standing out amongst the wreckage by a wide margin, however, was State Attorney Jack Campbell’s onstage self-immolation, during which he said, “We need Jeremy Matlow out of office,” and alluded to “evil men and their 12 trolls on Twitter.” Campbell not only broke the public trust but demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of Plato, who he invoked in a desperate attempt at credibility by-proxy.
Many rank-and-file members were sickened by this behavior and the censure of Matlow by the Chamber leadership. Many small business owners looking to the future want guidance that isn’t politicized by special interests,.
As for CEO Sue Dick, who knows what she made of all of this? Perhaps very little, or perhaps she was one of those cheering from the corner. Most who know Dick see her as affable, professional, smart, and a hard worker—but what if all of those attributes are put to work in the wrong direction? What if the Chamber, in general, is wrongfooting future generations of Tallahasseans by their actions today?
Like any association executive, Dick has to juggle the widely varied interests of a huge membership. Well-paid association execs often check their views at the door if they want to remain well-paid. She also has to massage the extraordinary egos of the aspiring plutocrats who fight for board membership and the attendant goodies that come with it. (Surely this, in itself, destabilizes wise stewardship of the local economy?)
As if learning nothing, the Chamber has already said it will abandon its laudable policy of not actively supporting political candidates and begin identifying and backing candidates. Its members already write prodigious amounts of checks on an individual basis, but leadership involvement simply creates more opportunities to exclude ordinary citizens.
The Chamber’s incoming Chairman Sammie Dixon, president and CEO of Prime Meridian Holding Co, is an ardent, voluble supporter of former President Donald Trump, which will not mesh well with the zeitgeist of Tallahassee—nor, if Trump’s true business record is any indication, be an economic blessing.
Worse for an unchanging Chamber leadership, a substantial number of America’s largest corporations are now embracing what many social conservatives deride as “woke” issues such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ issues, and the realities of climate change. The threatened hit to the bottom line for grappling with these issues has not materialized. Instead, corporate America is learning that engaging with progressivism is good business.
Has the Chamber missed the boat that much of corporate America is piloting? With no repudiation of the incendiary comments from State Attorney Campbell and Police Chief Lawrence Revell (“ignorant anti-cop” sentiment) at the recent retreat, it appears the Chamber is still standing on the dock, looking sadly at the one remaining (admittedly huge) dinghy labeled “Blueprint Influence and Mixed Use Development.”
With dwindling membership numbers, a full-frontal assault on the reform-minded people of Tallahassee, and a losing streak in recent local elections, it’s not clear that the Chamber of Commerce has a purpose beyond self-service to establishment elites at the expense of their mom-and-pop members, most of which are unaware of the financial inner-workings and hand-washing of the organization they pay $500, $1,000 or $2,500 to annually, in support its almost $2 million budget.
Is this an inevitable result of U.S. Chamber of Commerce culture? No. When the Tampa Bay Chamber was given space recently by their local newspaper of record, the Tampa Bay Times, they did not use it to call for growth for growth’s sake or for more jobs that we admittedly cannot fill. Their chairperson, Yvette Segura, spoke of working with stressed-out military families at McDill Air Force Base, of mental health awareness and outreach during the pandemic, and the implications of social injustice.
Given the sordid recent history of the Tallahassee Chamber, and with the clock ticking to solve or provide relief for the many problems facing this city, it will be fascinating to see whether the Chamber leadership can evolve with the times to be of use, economically or otherwise, to people in Tallahassee.