Chamber moves 2016 conference over Confederate flag

Sean Rossman, Tallahassee Democrat

The Greater Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce won’t return to the Sandestin Hilton next year for its annual conference since a Confederate flag still flies outside the Walton County Courthouse.

The Chamber’s executive committee voted unanimously Wednesday to break off the second half of its two-year commitment to the beach-side resort. The Panhandle county’s commissioners voted to replace a Confederate battle flag with an earlier version of the flag last week. The commission had the option to remove the flag or have voters choose what to do in a referendum vote.

The Chamber held off on moving this year’s three-day conference starting Aug. 14 because it wanted to honor its legal and contractual obligations, officials said. About 550 business, political and community leaders are expected to attend.

Chamber Chairman Rick Moore said the decision came “because of the divisive decision by the county commission there to continue to embrace a symbol of hatred at its public courthouse.”

The move comes after a national wave of public pressure to remove Confederate flags following the mass shooting of nine people at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. On Monday, Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor railed against the decision to hold the retreat in Walton County. Last week, the Tallahassee Branch of the NAACP urged the Chamber to change the location.

“It takes a lot of courage to step up and do the right thing,” said Dale Landry, president of the NAACP Tallahassee branch. “I’ve got to take my hat off to them.”

Landry met with Chamber president and CEO Sue Dick and chairman Rick Moore on Tuesday to discuss the flag and economic issues in Leon County. As a result of that conversation, the NAACP has scrapped a protest planned for Friday across the street from the hotel and will instead hold a news conference on economic strategies.

Proctor applauds the decision but said he won’t be attending.

“Why would I go down to some place that replanted the (Confederate) flag?” he asked. “I’d be a fool to go down to Walton County.”

Instead, Proctor is planning his own business conference that same weekend.

By not following through on its commitment next year, the Chamber will suffer some financial liability, said Chamber spokesman Nick Williams. The amount is unknown at this time.

The Chamber conference is usually held at either the Sandestin Hilton or the Omni Amelia Island Plantation in Fernandina Beach. The Chamber typically agrees to two-year contracts. This year is the first of its two-year contract at the Sandestin Hilton.

The Chamber held its 2010, 2011 and 2012 conferences in Sandestin. The Confederate flag has flown at the Walton County Courthouse since 1964.

Despite the hoopla, the Chamber’s business in Walton County will go on.

“The fellowship and friendship that the conference fosters have become as important as the major issues that are discussed and goals that are adopted,” Dick said. “For the hundreds of people who annually look forward to this shared community and family time together, we’re going to make this a successful and enjoyable event.”