KINGSPORT - Kingsport Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Kingsport Association officials sat down at the same table Wednesday to share a meal, exchange pleasantries, and talk merger.
"We're here with an open mind," said Larry Crawford, a member of the DKA board of directors. "We're here with no other agenda than to see if there is an opportunity to better DKA in an association with the chamber."
Mayor Dennis Phillips suggested the merger idea in a letter to the DKA and chamber in April. Earlier this month, city leaders decided to withhold half of the $40,000 they usually give to the DKA until the organization meets with the chamber on a possible merger.
At Wednesday's meeting, the DKA was represented by Crawford, DKA President Chaiba Bloomer and DKA Executive Director Lisa Childress. The chamber was represented by chamber President Tony Hewitt and chamber CEO Miles Burdine.
Burdine said when he initially received the mayor's letter suggesting a possible merger, "we looked at it as the mayor specifically requesting if there is a better way to operate since there are tax dollars involved."
"That's a sensible way of doing business," Burdine said.
The DKA was initially started years ago as a merchants association but has since evolved into a group designed to "make downtown Kingsport a preferred destination for people to live, work, shop, learn and relax."
Burdine said this isn't the first time the merger idea has been discussed between the DKA and the chamber.
"Our response has always been, we want to do what's best for the community and the organizations involved," he said.
Childress agreed. She noted the DKA has a good working relationship with the chamber. "And we don't want anything to stop that," she said.
The DKA's board has developed a list of questions about the merger idea, such as what would happen to the DKA's property if the organization falls under the chamber. The DKA owns the Gem Theater, which houses the DKA offices on Main Street. It also owns the Kesterson building on Main Street and is currently renovating that property.
The DKA has also questioned how the organization would be structured under the chamber's umbrella.
Hewitt said the chamber has many of the same questions.
"I don't think today even begins to present some of the answers," he said.
Hewitt suggested forming a team with representatives from both organizations to work through the issues.
"We want to know how it would be structured just as much as you do," Hewitt said.
Once the group has some answers, the two organizations could decide if a merger is the right way to go.
Hewitt said the team should craft specific answers to present to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen on the issue.
"It is not sufficient to go back to the BMA and say it doesn't work. It's not enough just to say ‘Yes we will' or ‘No we won't,'" he said.
He said the group could look at previous merger discussions between the two organizations and stumbling blocks during those discussions.
"The goal is to retain the good reputation of both organizations," Hewitt said.
"We don't want to do anything that would dilute the chamber efforts or its programs," he added.
Several programs already operate under the chamber's wings, such as Leadership Kingsport, Keep Kingsport Beautiful, Fun Fest, the Kingsport Office of Small Business Development and Entrepreneurship, and the Kingsport Convention and Visitors Bureau. Each program operates with its own council, staff and budget. The programs are housed under one roof, allowing them to share office equipment and resources.
"Whether or not that fits in with what Downtown Kingsport Association is trying to do, we'll have to find the answer," Burdine said.
He noted that "great things" are happening in the downtown district, such as the summer concert series, the opening of new restaurants, and the construction of new loft apartments..
"Let's not interfere with that," Burdine said.
The group agreed to choose four people from each organization to serve on an exploratory team to research the merger idea. Childress and Burdine will serve on the team, along with three others from each side.
"Nobody really knows if it would make sense or not until we talk," Burdine said. "That's what we've got to find out."