Chamber changes name and focus to concentrate on business and economic development
A rebranding for the East Lee County Chamber of Commerce ignited a rebirth of what it has to offer for the East Lee County community.
East Lee County Chamber of Commerce Chair and Operating Officer Mike Welch said a few years ago he was asked by the board of directors if he could save the chamber because it was voted to close down.
“What’s nice about it, is it’s a rebirth of a chamber with the recognition that Lehigh Acres doesn’t stand alone. We are working in close tandem with our new area of Gateway and also over the Alva State Road 80 area. Most of our concerns are regional now,” he said.
Over the past two years the chamber changed names from the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce to the East Lee County Chamber of Commerce. The chamber serves Lehigh Acres, Gateway, Alva, Buckingham, East Fort Myers and the RSW Airport communities.
“We have changed the chamber’s focus to mainly be concentrating on business and economic development,” Welsh said.
The board of directors also has become more diversified with such directors as Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, former senator and current Collier County Commissioner Burt Saunders and Ruth Anglickis with Landex Resorts International.
Pendergrass said he joined the board of directors two months ago because he saw an opportunity to get more informed. He said he has always worked with the economic development office.
“It’s another asset for us to get connected with the community and the new energy,” Pendergrass said.
A resident of Gateway, he said there are a lot of new businesses with the new Gateway High School and residential area by Daniels Parkway on State Road 82. The chamber provides an opportunity to network and tries to make other businesses in the area aware, as the county is so big, Pendergrass said.
“Businesses don’t know what the county is doing,” he said.
In addition, they may not know how to market a small business, as many are run by a husband and wife and may not have the assets to advertise. Pendergrass said it is about trying to get more of a footprint in the community and become more identified.
“Lehigh has such a large base of consumers and work force. We want them to use the businesses out there and shop locally and participate locally,” he said.
Other directors include past chair Ed Moore with Red Sneakers Mobile Marketing; Secretary Nancy Williamson with Realty World C. Bagans 1st; Treasurer David Deetscreek with Robert Bowers Accounting, Inc; Michael Jacobs with LegalShield; Lenore Maffetore with Synovus Bank; Carolyn Peplow with Lehigh Acres Community Services and Michael Thompson with Sunrise Realty Network, Inc.
“The board is being diversified to represent the east and it has helped with involvement with economic development with the Lee County Office of Economic Development,” Welsh said.
With the transition, membership has been stabilized. Welsh said they have also attracted some of the larger companies in the area, such as Lee Health, which just joined.
“Some of the larger utilities have joined. A lot of that has to do with the understanding that our area is the future for a lot of good retail and business growth along State Road 82 corridor,” he said.
When the curve ball of COVID-19 struck, the chamber, with a partnership with the Lee County government, became totally immersed in services with businesses that were applying for various federal assistance programs such as PPE and economic disaster loans.
“A lot of our merchants in the east, this is new to them,” Welsh said, adding that for many, English is their second language. “We were able to provide assistance in that and down to the basics . . . helping organize large food banks that we had in 18 months.”
The little but mighty chamber did a lot of heavy lifting and continues to do so, as the pandemic’s affects have been uneven across the county.
The East Lee County Chamber of Commerce tries to hold quarterly meetings on specialized topics that business owners want to hear about.
For more information about the chamber, or to become a member, visit www.elccoc.org, or call Welsh at (239) 565-8450. He said individuals can fill out an application on the website, or call him directly as he is very easy to be reached.
The website has generated more than 1,000 visits a week. Welch said many individuals who visit the site are from the north looking for lots and homes in the Gateway area.
“They come over to the chamber and do a lot of shopping,” he said, adding that they are looking for information regarding driver’s license changes, registering cars.
Due to the traffic, Welch asked both hospital systems to put displays in the lobby sharing where they can find health care.
Welsh, who has his own consulting business development firm in Fort Myers, which provides his living, has lived in the Lehigh Acres community for 22 years.
“The future is here,” he said. “It was only a matter of time before the forces for all sorts of development was going to happen. When I moved to Lehigh Acres there was 55,000 people. Today there is over 130,000. The demographics have shifted. It makes us a very diversified place than we used to be.”