Updated 4 yearss ago
An upstart chamber of commerce ruffles Broward's old guard.
by David Villano
What's in a name? Quite a lot, insists Steve Queior, if you call yourself a chamber of commerce. Queior, president of the 90-year-old Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, is still fuming nearly a year after a former stockbroker from Plantation began advertising trade shows, breakfast gatherings and business card exchanges using the name Broward County Chamber of Commerce. "Chambers are sought out because they are broad, trustworthy, professional resources," says Queior. "Unfortunately, anyone can open up a business and call themselves one."
Queior charges that the new group has been aggressively marketing to potential members and intentionally confusing them with a name that doesn't accurately depict its mission. While it is not-for-profit, Queior says, the Broward County Chamber is little more than a networking organization, ignoring the other key mandates of any chamber: Promoting the local economy, lobbying officials, and building ties between business and the community.
Broward County Chamber founder and President Lawrence Zolnowski rejects the charges. Zolnowski, a devout Christian who says the idea to create the organization came in a message from God, sees his group as a much needed alternative to a Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber that he believes has grown stuffy and unresponsive to its members. The upstart Broward County Chamber, he explains, is focused on getting members' names into the community. Its motto: "A referral you can count on."
Zolnowski claims paid membership of about 1,000 (compared to 1,900 at the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber) but expects to double that by mid year. "We're the fastest-growing chamber in the nation," he boasts. General membership dues range from $200 to $500, but for $1,500 anyone can receive a spot on the Board of Advisors, whose members' names are frequently posted on chamber mailings. "We're a membership organization that helps people build their business," he explains. "Isn't that what a chamber should do?"
Thomas Ignazio, major accounts manager for DigiDisplays and Graphics in Fort Lauderdale, certainly thinks so. Ignazio says the Broward Chamber of Commerce sets itself apart from others by promoting its members. Since purchasing a Board of Advisors membership less than a year ago, he estimates his local business has increased 50%. Ignazio regularly attends the chamber's networking events where he displays his products, touts his company and hands out business cards. "This is the only chamber in town that does anything for their members," he says. "Once you join they go out of their way to help you get ahead."
The 34-year-old Zolnowski encourages all prospective members to first join their local municipal chamber and then join his, which, he says, serves as the only truly county-wide umbrella group. It's that kind of pitch that most troubles Queior. He says the Broward Chamber is doing a grave disservice to the community by masquerading as a full-service chamber of commerce. "At the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce we get 27,000 hits per week on our website," Queior says. "People all around the world are seeking us out because they know what we are and what we stand for. I think the confusion between our two groups -- intentional or not -- is a dangerous thing."
Queior and Zolnowski have never met and neither appears ready to make the first gesture. Zolnowski, however, offers something of an olive branch: "Instead of slamming us, the Fort Lauderdale Chamber should join us," he says, pausing a moment to consider the proposition. "They should catch onto our coattails before it's too late."
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