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Of Commerce and Community: Chamber Celebrates 50th Anniversary

By Staff | Feb 24, 2012

An early version of the Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce complex, today's facility is visited by more than 200,000 visitors a year.

The Sanibel Captiva Chamber of Commerce observed their 50th Anniversary this month with a celebration at their Visitor’s Center. Beyond the congratulatory speeches and cake cutting, the occasion offered opportunity for all to reflect on the pivotal role the Chamber has performed, not only in terms of advocating and serving professional interests, but also working to preserve the very facets of life that combine to make this community more than just a great place to work, but a great place to live too.

Whether it is marketing and promotional activities that help drive tourism dollars to this destination, or supporting the staging of annual events enjoyed by residents and visitors alike, or helping to shape policies and processes vital to businesses and homeowners alike, the Chamber is constantly at work.

It all began 50 years ago, as Francis Bailey of Sanibel’s pioneering family puts it, when he and a handful of other Island professionals found themselves in a brief conversation at Sanibel’s old ferry landing. “We were standing on some log pilings having a talk, but I can’t recall exactly what brought us there that day,” says Bailey.

This entourage of entrepreneurs consisted of Paul Stahlin, Thomas Billheimer, John Wakefield, Thomas Mason, Dean Mitchell and H.K. Jeremiassen. Each came from different professional pursuits, as Bailey notes, for example, Stahlin had a trucking company that delivered goods to the island; Billheimer owned the High Tide Cottages on the beach at West Gulf Drive; Mitchell was principal at Castaways and Wakefield was doing business on Captiva.

This group created what became known as the Sanibel Captiva Business Association. Their initial goal was to stimulate business, but not at the cost of the community. Bailey says there was concern that Lee County leaders “had grandiose plans for expansion” which, when combined with the building of new roads and bridges, would have transformed this societal sanctuary into something of a more urban setting.

Before all the technology utilized today, the Chamber's Visitors Center used chalkboards to track openings for hotel rooms on Sanibel and Captiva.

This business association, once overcoming the challenges of determining dues, meeting times and designated roles, took up the fight against changes which would have made Sanibel much less recognizable by today’s standards. As Bailey says, “We were interested in promoting business and preserving the quality of life here.”

That association, in 1962, evolved into what is known today as The San Cap Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is comprised by more than 600 members and enjoys one of the highest retention rates for membership of any Chamber in the State of Florida.

And while the business activity locally has grown in proportion with the amount of tourists which frequently flock to Sanibel, the Chamber has maintained a tricky balancing act of promoting commercial interests in a manner that doesn’t forsake the environmental integrity and natural quality of the community, which some might mistakenly believe as being counter to the interest of business professionals.

In a former interview with Chamber President Ric Base, he said, “Some people once had the idea that we were interested in over developing Sanibel, building high rises on barges and leading all this expansion, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Of course, our members want to protect their businesses, but they want to protect this community too, that’s always been important to the Chamber,” said Base.

Evidence of organizational efforts in this regard is ample, from the Chamber’s role in advocating for height restrictions on developments or taking a stance on ecological impacts involving red tide, the Chamber has not only worked for its members, but the entire communities of Sanibel and Captiva.

But beyond serving those who live and work here, the Chamber is also fundamental to everyone that visits, serving at what Base called “the front desk” during the anniversary party.

To that point, almost 200,000 visitors came to the Chamber Visitors’ Center to inquire about where to stay and what to do locally. The Chamber’s website also provides content on local business and local activities which attracts more than a million visitors a month.

As it celebrates a 50th Anniversary, members of the Sanibel and Captiva Chamber are recognized not only for their support of commerce, but their service to community too.