KINGSPORT - Leaders of the Downtown Kingsport Association said Friday they plan to have an open mind when they meet with officials from the Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce about a possible merger of the two organizations.
Mayor Dennis Phillips suggested the merger idea in a letter to DKA and the chamber in April. Earlier this month, city leaders decided to withhold half of the $40,000 they usually give to DKA until the organization meets with the chamber on a possible merger. The meeting is set for June 20.
On Friday, DKA's executive committee met in closed session to discuss the issue. Following the meeting, DKA President Chaiba Bloomer said the DKA leadership was instructed by the executive committee to attend the meeting with an open mind. The committee has developed a list of questions it would like addressed, such as how DKA would be structured under the chamber's umbrella.
"We're going with open minds. We've got questions that need to be answered. I'm sure they have questions that need to be answered. But we're willing to sit at the table with open minds and investigate where we can take it," Bloomer said.
Mark Freeman, DKA president-elect, said the chamber and DKA have completely different missions, and how to merge those differences would be a challenge.
"The chamber is there to support its membership totally. The Downtown Kingsport Association, while a membership organization, is there to support downtown. There is a huge difference in that," Freeman said.
Moreover, if the chamber dedicated one program to promoting businesses in the downtown area, merchants in other parts of town may take offense, Freeman said.
A merger would also create legal issues, since the DKA Foundation owns property.
And a merger would impact the city's Main Street certification. That certification is used to help cities and counties achieve three-star status for economic development. The Main Street certification is held by DKA and is non-transferable to another organization.
"If we are merged, then the certification would go away," Freeman said.
DKA leaders say they don't understand the reason why their organization should be merged. They say DKA has done a lot in the past few years to help promote the downtown district, which has helped spur economic development and revitalization.
DKA Executive Director Lisa Childress said $14.3 million in property investments have been spent in the downtown area in the last three years alone.
Meanwhile, DKA has grown as an organization. A decade ago, its annual budget was just $113,125. Today, that number is $270,000. The budget includes membership dues, fund-raising efforts, private sponsorship dollars, contributions, event revenues, and city funding.
"We have come a long way. The organization as a whole is very proud of the success that we have achieved," Childress said.
She said DKA and its volunteers just want what's best for downtown.
"No one in this organization has a personal agenda. Everybody has a true passion for downtown. We don't want that passion and that drive to ever go away," she said.
DKA's mission is to help make downtown Kingsport a preferred destination for people to live, work, shop, learn, and relax. To help achieve that goal, the organization holds various events to draw people to the heart of the city. Those events include Fourth of July activities, Mardi Gras, Harvest Fare, Evening with the Arts, and the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony.
DKA volunteers also work vendor booths during the Thursday night summer concert series.
Freeman noted that DKA already works with the chamber on various events, including Mardi Gras and the summer concert series.
"We've had ongoing relationships for a long time where we share each other's resources. We just don't see the need to add another layer of bureaucracy," he said.
At the chamber, Executive Vice President and CEO Miles Burdine said his organization works well with the DKA.
"We have a great relationship with the Downtown Kingsport Association, and we certainly don't want anything such as a merger - even the possibility of a merger - to prevent us from continuing to work together in a favorable manner," Burdine said.
He noted the chamber operates a number of programs under its umbrella, including the Kingsport Convention & Visitors Bureau, Keep Kingsport Beautiful, Fun Fest, Leadership Kingsport and the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development & Entrepreneurship. All the programs operate more cost efficiently under one roof because they're able to share resources and equipment.
But should DKA also be merged into the chamber?
"I honestly don't know and won't know until we sit and talk about it," Burdine said. "There are a lot of questions that need to be answered."
The idea of merging the two organizations has been tossed around several times before, most recently in the late 1990s. Local banker Bill Dudney, who has been active in both the DKA and chamber, said he remembers the issue being discussed when he was president of the chamber in 1996.
"There were draft documents prepared between the DKA and chamber for the plan of a merger," Dudney said. But the idea never went beyond draft form.
"I think in the end, people felt strongly that DKA's sole purpose is the central business district. That was the reason why the merger typically did not go through in the past. They felt there was always a need for that single purpose champion for downtown," Dudney said.
This time around, DKA could face the possibility of losing city funding if it chooses to remain a stand-alone organization.
Bloomer noted the city at one time gave DKA $65,000 a year. That allocation was cut to $50,000, then $45,000, then $40,000.
"We've had to adjust all along, and if we need to, we'll continue to adjust," Bloomer said. "The worst thing that could happen is we lose funding from the city. But we'll find a way to work through it and go on."