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  • Friday, May 12, 2017 19:17 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Original Story on Fort Myers - Florida Weekly

    BY GLENN MILLER
    Florida Weekly Correspondent
      Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber founders Arlene Goldberg and Susan Christiano. COURTESY PHOTO
     COURTESY PHOTO
    Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber founders Arlene Goldberg and Susan Christiano The Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce’s goal is basic: To make life more harmonious for the gay community, to lessen the chance of encountering sour notes when visiting businesses and knowing where they’re welcome.

    Chamber president Susan Christiano knows about guesswork and uncertainty when patronizing businesses.

    “You don’t have to be afraid of that anymore,”

    Ms. Christiano said, sitting in The Gathering Place, a Fort Myers gay-owned restaurant.

    Arlene Goldberg sat across from Ms. Christiano. Both women are Realtors and have worked to start the new chamber. Its mission is helping the LGBTQ community. Those letters stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer and/ or questioning.

    The chamber held its inaugural event on April 23 and is up to about 40 members and its Facebook page had 271 likes as of May 2. It offers services to five counties — Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry.

     

     Founders and members Sue Christiano, Tyla Vaccarro, Arlene Goldberg, Ron Penn, Scott Cornish and Ollie Gentry. OLLIE MACK GENTRY PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY PHOTO



     OLLIE MACK GENTRY PHOTOGRAPHY / COURTESY PHOTO
    Founders and members Sue Christiano, Tyla Vaccarro, Arlene Goldberg, Ron Penn, Scott Cornish and Ollie Gentry.  Before the chamber could become reality the organizers needed to secure a 501(c)(6) from the IRS, which is required of any chamber that isn’t organized to profit its leaders.

    Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Christiano studied other gay chambers and sought out advice from the leaders of those chambers. Is there a need for such a chamber?

    “Well, for one thing there is no source of information, nowhere where a member of the LGBT community and a onestop place you and your family can go and can get the information that they need,” Ms. Christiano said.

    Ms. Christiano said the chamber fills needs similar to other chambers.

    “The one question that people do ask: Why do you need a chamber?” Ms. Christiano said. “Well, why does the Hispanic community need a chamber? Why do you need the Christian chamber? Because it’s groups getting together with the same common cause.”

    The first member was Fort Myers attorney Mary Beth Fletcher, who joined as soon as she heard it existed. She knows from experience that many in the LGBTQ community fear the reception they sometimes receive.

    “I would get calls from people who were afraid they’d be judged,” Ms. Fletcher said.

    The chamber serves as a directory, letting people know where they won’t be judged.

    “This is exactly what we need,” Ms. Fletcher said.

    She pointed out a detail that Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Christiano also mentioned.

    “You don’t have to be LGBT to be a member,” Ms. Fletcher said.

     POTTER
    POTTER

    One of the early chamber members is Naples physician Dr. Clint Potter, who is a member of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association and provides services to LGBTQ patients. He understands the rationale behind the chamber — it helps relieve anxiety for LGBTQ people seeking a doctor.

    “To know there’s a gay-friendly place I can go and not be scared,” Dr. Potter said.

    Dr. Potter’s website (NaplesAIM.com) notes that his practice is an “affirming LGBT model.”

    The Southwest Florida Community Foundation was one of the first members. Its CFO, Ron Penn, is the chamber’s treasurer. Mr. Penn said he has resided in Lee County for 12 years.

    “I still don’t know all the gay businesses,” Mr. Penn said.

    Through the chamber, he hopes to learn about more.

    Fort Myers resident Annette Trossbach is the producing artistic director of The Laboratory Theater. Her theater was an early chamber member.

    She believes it’s important to send a message to potential LGBTQ visitors and residents considering Southwest Florida for vacation or relocation.

    “To know they’re welcome,” Ms. Trossbach said.

    She added that is something that unites customers of any business.

    “We like to spend our dollars where we are embraced as human beings,” Ms. Trossbach said.

    That also motivated the chamber’s founders. They know the questions folks might have.

    “What are the resources?” Ms. Christiano said. “Will I be able to find a doctor? … I want to adopt. Who would I talk to?”

    She envisions the Harmony Chamber as a “one-stop source” to answer such questions. But more than that.

    “It’s more than a directory,” Ms. Christiano said. “We are going to be instrumental in raising awareness.”

    Ms. Goldberg echoes her friend and real estate partner at RE/MAX with the message they want LGBTQ people to hear about Southwest Florida.

    “They need to know that we are a welcoming community and we have resources,” Ms. Goldberg.

    She has seen the area evolve since moving here in 1989 from Flushing, N.Y. Ms. Goldberg eventually became one of the best-known people in the gay community, especially after she fought to secure recognition as heir to her late wife, Carol Goldwasser, who died in 2014.

    Ms. Goldberg and Ms. Goldwasser met when they were 13 and living in the Bronx in the Castle Hill Projects.

    “We knew there was something special,” Ms. Goldberg said. “But we didn’t know what it was.”

    Ms. Goldberg joined in a lawsuit that struck down Florida’s same-sex marriage ban.

    Her work assisting the gay community made her well known. But it did something else, as well.

    “I think all of that helped me get over the grieving process,” Ms. Goldberg said.

    It was a lot to get over.

    “We were together for 47 years,” Ms. Goldberg said.

    They married in New York in 2011, when such unions were not yet legal in Florida.

    Now, six years later, the chamber is up and running.

    “The timing is right and we want everybody to feel a part of this,” Ms. Goldberg said. “It’s not about us. It’s about the community. It’s about them feeling like they have a real resource to go to, that they don’t have to feel uncomfortable calling or asking us or telling us anything because we’re there.”

    For now, the chamber exists only online but that will change. Organizers are thinking about a physical home, likely in downtown Fort Myers.

    “There is a prospective area we’re looking at,” Ms. Goldberg said.

    She expects a move into a place could happen in 2018.

    Ms. Christiano said most members in Lee County but hopes to add members in the counties.

    Chamber officials recently attended a Charlotte County Pride to spread the word.

    What is the ultimate goal for the Harmony Chamber?

    “When we won’t need a chamber,” Ms. Goldberg said.

    For now, the Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce is needed.

  • Saturday, April 22, 2017 20:15 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Link to full article on WGCU website  with audio.

    Members of Southwest Florida’s LGBTQ community and LGBT-friendly business owners celebrated a ribbon cutting Thursday evening for the region’s newest business networking organization: The Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce.  The chamber was created to promote networking within the region’s LGBT friendly businesses and to promote economic opportunities for chamber members.

    Chamber members also aim to promote Southwest Florida as an LGBT-welcoming tourist destination.

    Thursday’s ribbon cutting event was held at The Gathering Place in downtown Fort Myers. Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann was the lone elected official in attendance and he delivered a brief address in support of the effort.

    Local LGBT rights advocate and chamber co-founder Arlene Goldberg said she wants the chamber to be a welcoming organization for LGBT people and the community’s allies.

    “There’s still discrimination against LGBT people when it comes to services, to employment and to housing,” said Goldberg.  “So we’re working on that, but since the federal environment right now is so conservative, we feel that working locally will encourage our people to band together and make us strong here.  If we’re strong here, I think that’s what matters right now.”

    The Harmony Chamber began the evening with 18 business members and Goldberg said the member list is growing.  “We have restaurants.  We have another company that repairs leather.  We have three realtor companies.  We have Visuality joined and the Laboratory Theater joined and ACT joined today and all different kinds of companies are joining,” said Goldberg.  “We welcome our allies.”

    The fledgling chamber is currently a labor of love for Goldberg and other board members with no physical space and no paid staff, but members plan to open a welcome center and hire an executive director in 2018. 

    The Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce will hold its next meeting in May at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

  • Wednesday, April 05, 2017 09:55 | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    Link to full article on USA Today 

    "In a ground-breaking ruling, a federal appeals court ruled that a 1964 law barring sex discrimination extends to sexual orientation, marking a major workplace victory for gays and lesbians." USA TODAY

  • Saturday, March 25, 2017 08:30 | Anonymous member (Administrator)
    Original Story on Wink News's site (with Video)


    FORT MYERS, Fla. A dozen businesses in Fort Myers joined the new Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce to help promote a more unified LGBTQ professional community.

    The Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce will have their inaugural ribbon cutting event on April 20 at 5 p.m.

  • Thursday, March 23, 2017 19:00 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Original Story on ABC-7's site (with Video)

    Leaders of the LGBTQ community are marking Southwest Florida as a place to live and do business and have created an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.

    Their mission is to promote gay-friendly businesses.

    Gay activist Arlene Goldberg said she constantly receives phone calls from people all over the country asking for gay attorneys and even "gayborhoods" in Southwest Florida.

    Goldberg and friend Sue Christiano have just created Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce for that reason.

    Both women said the biggest question they get is why a gay chamber is needed in the first place.

    Their answer is simple. They said the gay community here is growing quickly and its members want to do business in a safe environment.

    They also want gay tourists to feel welcomed.

    Roy Yonkers and his husband moved from Raleigh-Durham to Fort Myers a year ago and opened Barks and Bubbles along US-41 last October.

    It’s a do-it-yourself dog wash complete with tubs and shampoo.

    “It's definitely a dog-friendly city,” Yonkers said.

    He said business is booming - and that's not all he discovered.

    “It's a very gay-friendly community,” Yonkers noted.

    He and his partner were excited to learn there is now an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.

    Its mission is to attract gay business owners like Yonkers to relocate here.

    “We're looking at hotels, catering, florists, ministers who are LGBTQ friendly,” Christiano said.

    She and Goldberg hope the growing LGBTQ community will even have its own "gayborhood" - a neighborhood of primarily gay people.

    “I think that downtown Fort Myers will be that place,” Goldberg said.

    She said the downtown area is attractive to the gay community.

    “It's a very active area. They have Art Walk, Music Walk, all kinds of things downtown. That attracts people. That also attracts the LGBTQ community,” Goldberg said.

    Tony Clark is also banking on that prediction.

    He opened up the Gathering Place, a gay-owned restaurant, in downtown Fort Myers, and is proud to be part of the new gay chamber.

    “It gives people in our community, if they need any kind of assistance, somewhere to go where they know they're accepted,” Clark said.

    That acceptance is something the Harmony Chamber hopes all businesses will embrace.

    “We need to pull together as a group so that we can network,” Goldberg said.

    Right now, the Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce is virtual, their website open to the world. As their membership grows, plans call for opening up an office in downtown Fort Myers.

  • Thursday, March 23, 2017 18:00 | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Original Story on NBC-2's site (with video)

    Leaders of the LGBTQ community are marking Southwest Florida as a place to live and do business and have created an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.

    Their mission is to promote gay-friendly businesses.

    Gay activist Arlene Goldberg said she constantly receives phone calls from people all over the country asking for gay attorneys and even "gayborhoods" in Southwest Florida.

    Goldberg and friend Sue Christiano have just created Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce for that reason.

    Both women said the biggest question they get is why a gay chamber is needed in the first place.

    Their answer is simple. They said the gay community here is growing quickly and its members want to do business in a safe environment.

    They also want gay tourists to feel welcomed.

    Roy Yonkers and his husband moved from Raleigh-Durham to Fort Myers a year ago and opened Barks and Bubbles along US-41 last October.

    It’s a do-it-yourself dog wash complete with tubs and shampoo.

    “It's definitely a dog-friendly city,” Yonkers said.

    He said business is booming - and that's not all he discovered.

    “It's a very gay-friendly community,” Yonkers noted.

    He and his partner were excited to learn there is now an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce.

    Its mission is to attract gay business owners like Yonkers to relocate here.

    “We're looking at hotels, catering, florists, ministers who are LGBTQ friendly,” Christiano said.

    She and Goldberg hope the growing LGBTQ community will even have its own "gayborhood" - a neighborhood of primarily gay people.

    “I think that downtown Fort Myers will be that place,” Goldberg said.

    She said the downtown area is attractive to the gay community.

    “It's a very active area. They have Art Walk, Music Walk, all kinds of things downtown. That attracts people. That also attracts the LGBTQ community,” Goldberg said.

    Tony Clark is also banking on that prediction.

    He opened up the Gathering Place, a gay-owned restaurant, in downtown Fort Myers, and is proud to be part of the new gay chamber.

    “It gives people in our community, if they need any kind of assistance, somewhere to go where they know they're accepted,” Clark said.

    That acceptance is something the Harmony Chamber hopes all businesses will embrace.

    “We need to pull together as a group so that we can network,” Goldberg said.

    Right now, the Southwest Florida Harmony Chamber of Commerce is virtual, their website open to the world. As their membership grows, plans call for opening up an office in downtown Fort Myers.

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CONTACTS

swflharmonychamber@gmail.com

PO Box 07427
Fort Myers, FL, 33919

800-967-7750

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