By MITCH TRAPHAGEN
By definition, a chamber of commerce is all about commerce; it’s all about business. For Melanie Rimes, the long-time executive director of the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, “business” is intertwined with a longer view: a driving passion and compassion.
There is no city hall in Ruskin. Gibsonton does not have a city council. There is no mayor (other than the honorary sort) in Apollo Beach. We have county commissioners, of course, who meet in downtown Tampa. Commissioners like Sandra Murman are available, frequently coming down to our corner of the south to hold job fairs and events, and to hear from their constituents.
But they’re really not down here. If someone were to call from Michigan or New York to get information about what life is like in Ruskin or Apollo Beach, the person who would likely take that call is Melanie Rimes. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if local residents called her to complain about potholes in the streets, too.
During her tenure as executive director for the SouthShore Chamber, she was there for the merger of the former Ruskin and Apollo Beach chambers. She is now responsible for some of the biggest events in the Tampa Bay Area, including the Ruskin Seafood Festival and the Apollo Beach Manatee Arts Festival (yes, it is technically held in Ruskin these days but in heart — and intent — it still belongs to Apollo Beach. “It will always be the Apollo Beach Manatee Festival of the Arts and it will always be the Ruskin Seafood Festival,” Rimes said).
But the reality is that both events have long since outgrown their local namesakes. Today both are so successful and so large that people come from across the region and, in some cases, across the nation, to attend them.
And they tend to be good for business. E.G. Simmons Park is a fine showcase for the beauty that is South Hillsborough. The Manatee Viewing Center is another unique treasure.
“I’ve traveled all over the county and South County is the most desirable place to be in all of Hillsborough County,” Rimes said. “In this community, the people are incredible. Now, so many of our residents can live here, work here and play here. We want people to stay here. We want people to be a part of this community and to fall in love with it. We want people to be part of the fabric of this community.”
Her focus is on the member businesses of the chamber, the businesses that could or should be members, and probably even those that aren’t but sometimes need a little help.
For Rimes, her life, her sense of responsibility, while intertwined, extends far beyond her job — the larger community is within her perspective. And that is a personal choice, but also one that serves the member businesses well.
“I couldn’t begin to list everything the members of this chamber have done for people and this community,” Rimes said.
She reluctantly spoke of a 35-year-old migrant worker with children, one of whom was old enough to be working in the fields. The woman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was dying. Rimes was there. She held the woman’s hand. Afterwards, she tried to help with funeral arrangements; she worked to help the husband, also a migrant worker, and the children left behind. Rimes doesn’t enjoy talking about it.
That wasn’t an isolated case. People call, Rimes helps. If an animal rescue organization has a critical and immediate need, Rimes could likely get what they needed within a few hours and a few telephone calls. If a teacher talks about a student in need, she’ll find someone within the chamber who can help. The problem will get fixed.
“If someone has a need, I’m sure I could think up three companies that would step forward to fulfill that need,” she said.
At a very young age she lived with her mother, sister and grandparents in South Carolina, along with and alongside her grandparent’s housekeeper. But the woman was much more than a housekeeper both to Rimes and her family. A mother with 11 children, she had never learned to read or write. When young Melanie moved in, that changed. They checked out books from the Book Mobile and learned to read — the child and a woman with few opportunities from a different era, learned together.
Years later, after Rimes moved to the Tampa Bay area, their learning paid off. Rimes received letters from her former nanny that she treasures to this day. That woman, who Rimes said always had a smile on her face, in turn taught her what is truly valuable in life.
“What I’ve learned from her is that people help each other. I learned about what is really important in life,” Rimes said. “She grew up in a time that was not easy for her, but she was always so happy.”
And now today, Rimes’ priorities are on her family, her community and her member businesses. Although her tenure has been marked by it, success for her is a relative term. There is something more, something deeper … something that transcends the here and now. She has strong feelings, and she acts on them. It has been more than a decade since she joined the chamber, and all facets are plainly visible. She never seems to miss an opportunity to promote businesses and South County in general. Her children are omnipresent, as is Rimes herself, at nearly every possible event in the greater community.
The chamber board has always known that my priority is my children,” she said. “They know that if I need to go to an event, they may also be there. They have been raised in the chamber. I absolutely love the things they have been able to see here. I am very grateful. I love my job.”
Melanie Rimes is the executive director of a chamber of commerce, a position she clearly loves, but she has superseded it. Her motives are her own; they are not selfish, but they are personal. But she also knows the business community is well served by being involved in the larger community. And during her time at the helm of the chamber, the community, and certainly the business community, has prospered.
“Start empowering people,” she said. “Give them hope, help them. And it will help the whole community. I absolutely love everything about South County.”
On March 11, the Apollo Beach Manatee Festival of the Arts, one of the biggest events in the Bay Area, will open. Melanie Rimes, of course, will be there with her husband Dave Rimes and her daughters, all of whom are likely to be helping out. Because like Melanie, they know that it’s more than business. It’s personal.
For more information about the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce and the upcoming Apollo Beach Manatee Festival of the Arts visit www.southshorechamberofcommerce.org.