While the notorious tension at city hall seems to escalate as the mayor, commissioners, and same few outspoken residents squabble on how to run the city, the volunteer members of the Red Sunset Merchant Association continue their efforts to make South Miami the destination of choice for shopping, dining, and holiday celebrations.
Begun in the 1960’s and passing through various incarnations in its half plus century existence, RSMA is responsible for the most iconic annual events in town. Santa’s Parade of Elves, Halloween Safe Streets, and the Rotary Arts Festival began with RSMA.
This year’s direction from current president and Preemo Computer Repair CEO Ivan Mladenovic saw a not-so-uniformly embraced leadership style that went from the traditional monthly “Merchant Nights” elbow rubbing wine and cheese get-togethers at rotating local venues, to quarterly business luncheons and enhanced technology based outreach.
“We sent an email to explain we were moving to quarterly luncheons because monthlies were not being attended,” said Mladenovic. “On Merchant Nights we got between 20 and 50 people so we decided to get back to a full blown luncheon. We paid for the lunch and hosted more than 100 (attendees). It’s a different kind of engagement during the day time and a better opportunity to address the merchants.”
Sunset Quick Print Owner John Sorgie was RSMA president in 1983 and is credited with taking a then dormant association and making it into a vibrant, relevant force for change. The Parade of Elves and Halloween Safe Streets began during his service.
“We didn’t have too many free lunches back then,” said Sorgie. “We had evening meetings, we drank a lot of wine and it got people to show up. We were more of a club, we knew everybody’s name. Now I don’t know anybody and I go to all the meetings.”
The RSMA website defines the organization’s purpose as an aid to “the development and beautification” of South Miami’s downtown, “a promotional body for merchants and businesses, and liaison to the City of South Miami.”
The primary challenge over the years has been to maintain and enhance what has been, at times, a strained relationship with local government according to FootWorks co-owner Hans Huseby. Huseby is currently RSMA vice president and has served at least two tenures as president. He, partner Laurie Huseby and son JP are celebrating their 40th anniversary in business this year.
“With the historical perspective of the association, there is a little bit of sadness but a great deal of hope,” said Huseby. “Sadness because there was a time when the merchant association had a really good relationship with the city and we were able to do things together that were quite remarkable. Now we often feel like an unwanted step child and that is something we have been working to overcome.”
Mladenovic says he has been active at city hall to help change that. “I go to (city commission) meetings and speak on behalf of the merchants on relevant specific initiatives like landscaping and street signs. I would poll merchants in the area by talking to people ad hoc to get basic opinions and craft emails to the commission.”
The RSMA member contact list requested by South Miami News to poll members for commentary related to leadership style and initiative accomplishment was unavailable prior to press time.
Sorgie says the success of the RSMA in the 80’s was due to channeling the active participation and enthusiasm of members. “Block Captains” were established to share relevant issues with neighbors. A “Beat” program helped law enforcement deter crime downtown. Local book store at the time, BookWorks, hosted an annual Book Fair sidewalk sale and when Suzy Rubenstein of Nautical Loft was RSMA president, there was a South Miami Bicycle Race.
“Now they want to do everything on the internet,” said Sorgie. “We did everything face to face and it was more personal. I still print 800 newsletters a month and mail them to my customers. I believe a piece of paper in your hand is better than a digital newsletter in your inbox and I send digital newsletters twice a month.”
Technology is not the end all but a tool that if embraced can make doing business easier according to Mladenovic. “Our purpose is to explore techniques to get people to spend more time and money in our stores, to beautify and drive business to the area. We are not a social club, but a “business mall marketing association.”
The term was coined by past president and long time board member Amy Livergood Donner per Mladenovic. Donner credits his leadership with making strides in technology for members who can now “claim their search engines and claim their pages” online for enhanced business visibility. She says the board also remains very committed and engaged with the city on budgeting issues but there is still more to do.
“We don’t get together enough,” said Donner. “Whether its lunch or dinner is not important, but you need a magic mix of communication styles with networking and friends getting together for a free flow of ideas. This creates leadership and cross marketing opportunities for the merchants as well. How do you use new technology without getting together first to learn about it? No matter how far we come, at the end of the day, it’s always about wine.”
RSMA has preliminarily voted on the new slate of officers for next year by email according to Huseby. They expect to meet in June to formerly announce the new leadership of the organization. There are no upcoming events listed on the RSMA website.