homepage logo

Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce got its start in 1961

By Staff | Sep 24, 2020

The first days of what is now the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce had a “Quirk,” but shed “light” on what would become an organization that now serves approximately 860 members.

As the city celebrates 50 years of incorporation in 2020, the chamber helped create the groundwork for businesses to have a voice and to thrive, starting in 1961.

A meeting with coffee and over the future of business in the community gave birth to the chamber’s predecessor, the Cape Coral Merchant’s Association Inc., in 1961. Edward R. Quirk was named the organization’s first president and members met in Quirk’s small storefront. He had moved to the Cape earlier that year from Providence, R.I., where he was president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America at Providence. Under his direction, the merchant’s group was officially formed on Aug. 7, 1962, and received its state charter on Jan. 25, 1963.

There was not much business in the city then, but the group kept busy by organizing trade shows at the new Cape Coral Yacht Club. The association’s first major action was partnering with the Cape Coral Civic Association to bring 16 streetlights to the business district and the Cape Coral Shopping Plaza. Other groups also helped bring in lights, creating the first Lighting District for the community of about 40,000 residents.

The group was not without its early controversy. In 1964, it protested Gulf American Corporation sales employees taking “kickbacks” or “referrals” of 5 percent for passing along business to certain community businesses and not others. GAC stopped that practice soon after the complaint.

On Feb. 16, 1965, the Cape Coral Merchant’s Association was renamed the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce and received its state charter. Quirk became that organization’s first president, serving from 1965 through 1966.

As more businesses became members of the newly minted group, an annual banquet was created. At its first event on Jan. 25, 1966, the featured speaker was Leonard Rosen, one of the original founders and developers of the community. The event’s second speaker on Jan 26, 1967, was noted news commentator John Cameron Swayze.

The chamber also was involved in many more community projects at the time, including beautification of Cape Coral Parkway, cleaning up the business district and permanent maintenance of Cape’s waterways. The chamber also removed benches after advertising was barred on those benches. It also started the first chamber business directory.

The organization has occupied a front row seat for key moments in the community’s history — the opening of the Cape Coral and Midpoint bridges, Cape Coral’s incorporation on Aug. 18, 1970, as well as the city’s first police and fire departments. The chamber memberships have helped pay for the chamber’s home and welcome center at the foot of the Cape Coral Bridge on the Caloosahatchee and a second welcome center at FOS Furniture.

The chamber’ involvement in community events continues to grow with the Farmer’s Market in Club Square, Surfside Farmer’s Market, Taste of the Cape and Holiday Festival of Lights. Its leadership programs continue to connect people, businesses and the community, inspiring its participants to become more active in events and non-profits. The chamber’s Excellence in Education Awards trumpets the accomplishments of students. Its monthly chamber luncheons and after-hours events, as well as business card exchanges, foster business relationships throughout the area.

A “Who’s Who” of noted Southwest Florida residents have served as chamber chairs through the years, including former two-term U.S. House of Representatives member Connie Mack III, former state legislator Fred Dudley and former state Rep. Gary Aubuchon. Gail Markham, founder of Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Company, P.A., was elected the chamber’s first woman chairperson in 1984.

From that small storefront location at Quirk’s business, the chamber built its Cape Coral Parkway Welcome Center through a partnership with the Cape Coral Construction Industry Association in 1976 on land leased from Lee County and the state.

In 1987, the welcome center was relocated as part of a merger between the Cape Coral chamber the Fort Myers chamber to become the Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Florida.

Two years later, the business community decided its own chamber was needed and formed the Cape Coral Chamber of Commerce, operating from a building on the corner of Del Prado Boulevard and Cape Coral Parkway. In 1994, the chamber returned to its current welcome center location, purchasing the building in 1998. Nearly 35,000 people visit the welcome center each year.

Submitted by Tom Hayden, a Cape Coral Museum of History board member. As we celebrate 50 years as a city, much of our area’s history, chronicled at the museum, will be featured twice a month in similar articles provided to the Cape Coral Breeze.