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DKA/chamber merger issue raises hackles

June 10th, 2007 12:00 am by Matthew Lane

KINGSPORT - A tense discussion took place last week between Mayor Dennis Phillips and the Downtown Kingsport Association about whether or not the organization was willing to discuss a merger with the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce.

As a result, city leaders agreed to withhold half the normal amount of funds it usually gives the DKA until discussions with the chamber are held. A meeting between DKA and the chamber is scheduled for June 20.

During a BMA work session on Monday, city leaders were discussing the downtown concert series and the $40,000 the city earmarked in the upcoming fiscal year for the series. Eastman Credit Union has begun a private fund-raising effort to enhance the series, raising $50,000, which is not meant to replace the money provided by the city, Alderman Ben Mallicote said.

When a question was raised about promotions, that the chamber and DKA were discussing this and other issues, Phillips said the DKA was unwilling to work with the chamber on a possible merger.

The idea of a merger came from a letter Phillips wrote the DKA and the chamber on April 23 requesting the two organizations confer "on the potential for a merger, examining both the pro and con."

As a former president of DKA, Phillips wrote it would appear that the chamber could offer DKA a greater support network and an opportunity to become truly integrated with a number of chamber programs that have similar marketing visions.

Four days after Phillips sent his letter, the DKA sent a letter back to the city and chamber along with two pages of questions regarding a possible merger. The letter said the DKA would need the questions addressed before proceeding further, and that consideration of a merger should take place in December due to the summer being the busy season for the DKA.

"All I was doing was asking two organizations to sit down and see if something could be done. All you've (DKA) done is make it personal against me. I don't know if you can work with the chamber or not," Phillips said. "I don't know where the wheel fell off the wagon. I just want them to explore the possibility. (The DKA letter) was not the way to do it. I don't understand what's so complicated in us asking them for them to sit down and see if there is a way to do things better. All of a sudden it got way out of hand."

Mark Freeman, president-elect of DKA, spoke during Monday's work session and said the DKA was not unwilling to meet on the issue ... just not right now.

"We don't see the viability of it, but we're not saying we couldn't. We just don't see it as a good time," Freeman said. "You're forcing an issue that is far more complex than anyone realizes. But we would be happy to sit down and talk about it."

Alderman Ben Mallicote told Freeman the list of questions from the DKA are "the types of questions the two of you should be discussing."

"You're essentially saying, go ahead and give us the money and we'll see if it works out. That's unreasonable," Mallicote said.

DKA President Chaiba Bloomer said the reason why the DKA drafted the questions was to prevent people from wasting their time.

"When you ask people to meet and explore something, we want to make sure we have the information to make educated decisions for best interest," Bloomer said. "If we meet for the sake of meeting, then we're just wasting everyone's time."

Freeman said the DKA executive committee was opposed to a merger and believes the organization is unfairly being forced into the issue.

"We feel like we're being pushed into a corner and the budget is being used to force us to deal with an issue we're not ready to deal with," Freeman said. "There's no animosity. We're just asking for a little bit of patience."

One of the claims made by Phillips during Monday's meeting was that the concert promoter would not be involved in the series if the DKA was involved.

Doug Beatty, the promoter for the series, said he never threatened to pull out.

"We just felt the chamber and the (Kingsport Convention and Visitors Bureau) had a better infrastructure and was better equipped with the event in downtown. They've got staff, marketing, a bunch of staffing the DKA does not have and a lot of expertise the DKA does not have," Beatty said. "It's a much more natural fit for (the DKA) to deal with the merchants and be in charge of the beer sales and vending."

Monday's discussions went back and forth between the mayor and DKA officials for about 20 minutes, with each side basically repeating their original position. Alderman Ken Marsh broke the stalemate by suggesting the DKA only be funded half the year or $20,000 until a meeting is held between the organization and the chamber to discuss a possible merger.

By Wednesday, a meeting had been called which the CEOs and presidents of the DKA and chamber are expected to attend.

Miles Burdine, chamber CEO, said he does not have an opinion on whether the chamber and DKA should merge.

"It's very premature to form an opinion on it, but it makes sense we talk about it, like any business would talk about it. There's a lot of questions out there that need to be answered," Burdine said. "I really think this was a miscommunication misunderstanding. But I think it makes sense to sit and talk like the city requested, and we indeed have that meeting set.

"We're willing to meet with any organization any time to make things happen for Kingsport."

Later in the week, neither Phillips nor the DKA regretted the comments made during Monday's meeting.

"The issue seems to be a need to move very quickly on an issue we were not forewarned about, do not see a need for and have received no comments relative to our list of questions, concerns and issues," Freeman said. "We think maybe the question should be why is the mayor/city so opposed to a written dialog that at least addresses the identified issues while raising other issues so any meetings can be more productive."

Phillips said the problem is the unwillingness of the DKA to just sit down and discuss the issue.

"If (the meeting is) done for the right purpose, then that's wonderful. If one side feels like they're being forced into something, I don't know. Time will tell," Phillips said. "It's certainly not a personal thing with me. I'm sorry it's gotten to this point, but it's personal because they've made it that way."

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