Virginia Panico has been chamber EVP for 23-years
The walls of Virginia Panico’s office are a fitting parallel to the historic building they occupy. Nestled on the bottom floor of Old City Hall, well beneath the iconic bell tower, the Executive Vice President of the Key West Chamber of Commerce’s desk is covered with organized stacks of files and folders. The brick walls surrounding her are a narrative of Key West’s growth, lined with awards and plaques dating back to the late ‘70s, when Panico joined one of the two existing chambers in town. Other commemorations chronicle her days as head of the Hotel and Motel Association (an organization she and other hospitality GM’s formed before the days of a Tourism and Development Council), while further accolades reflect her service as a Key West City Commissioner in the late ‘80s.
There are many facets to Virginia Panico’s role in the commmunity. For some, she is the witty Sargent-at-Arms of the Key West Rotary Club. The Staten Island native can transform a portion of the weekly lunch meeting into a “Netflix-esque” comedy special. For others, she is a volunteer for various local organizations ranging from dynamic auctioneer at this year’s Florida Keys SPCA Gala to assisting with the concessions at Key West High School baseball games. And for most, she is the tenacious leader and voice of the Key West business community.
Yet, when Panico arrived to Key West in 1974, she was an ambitious young woman looking to make her mark in a business community dominated by men. Just like Panico, the city of Key West was redefining its identity when she arrived. And whether the timing was divine or by pure coincidence, the two will be forever linked. While Panico will not accept credit for everything Key West is today, it is safe to say she and the city she loves helped shape one another over the past 40 years. In her own words, the business pioneer and community visionary sat down with the Keys Weekly for a rare peek beyond her dynamic exterior:
Q: What brought you to Key West and what are some of the memories you carry from that era?
A: I arrived to Key West in 1974 with my mother and father. My first job was less than a year later with the FKAA [Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority]. A few years later I owned the Sea Isle hotel with my parents and we eventually sold it and bought the El Patio motel in 1977. You have to understand those were tough times for those of us in the hospitality businesses back then; there were limited rooms and there was no TDC — everyone had to pull together. A group of us established the Key West Hotel and Motel Association in ‘78 and we incorporated in ‘80. I was the president of that organization from 1980-84. But my fondest memories from that time are of my parents. I recall one particular Christmas, in 1978, the Casa Marina had just opened back up and we had a drink at the Calabash Lounge. That was the place to be In Key West back then.
Q: How did you eventually become the figurehead of the Key West Chamber?
A: I first joined the chamber in 1978 and while I served on a number of committees, I did not become president of the board until 1986. In 1987 I sold El Patio Motel and three days later I announced my candidacy for City Commission. In 1991 the Executive Director of the Chamber resigned and I needed to go back to work. I applied for the job along with 131 other applicants.
Q: Who have been some of your greatest influences during your tenure as EVP of the Key West Chamber of Commerce?
A: My biggest mentor has to be my father. He taught me so many things about life and business [tears in eyes]. And there were several others from his generation that kept the community strong. Names like Frank Toppino, Frank Romano, Joe Pinder and John Koenig — I call them the old guard. But I also wouldn’t be where I am today without Margo Golan. She taught me how powerful a woman can be in business. When she walked into a room, everyone watched and listened.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing the Key West business community today?
A: Workforce housing. It’s been an issue since I’ve been here. We’ve made progress, but we have to move from talking to doing. You have to have a full partnership between the public and private sectors. Concessions need to be made on height and density and we have to consider the least impacted areas.
Q: What are some of the chamber initiatives you are most proud of?
A: I’m proud of so many things, but the education of our youth has always been a top priority for this chamber and business community. Due to the generosity of our members, we have donated more than $500,000 in scholarships since the early 1990s while promoting our Teacher Recognition Program, Mentoring Program and our Tom Sawyer Five Star Award program.
Q: If you do ever consider retiring, what is the best advice you could offer a successor?
A: [Laughing] Always put a board member in front of you to take the first bullet! But you simply have to know your stuff and you have to be involved. There is no substitute for having a great staff. Mine makes all of the difference in the world. And most of all, you have to know your community. We are so diverse in Key West. You have to get out of your comfort zone and branch out into all areas of the arts, education and business.
Q: What is it like working with so many strong personalities on one board?
A: I have a great board and I typically know where they stand and what they think, but if I’m not sure, I’m the first to ask. Every once and a while they will make a decision that might seem a bit out there and I always ask the same question, ‘Would you do this with your business?’ But listening is the key. You have to listen, be able to negotiate and change on a dime when need be.
Q: This chamber is never shy about being involved politically. Why is this important?
A: Everything that happens in politics affects business. Keep in mind, when you live and work somewhere, you pay taxes twice. When you consider the rising costs of government fees, permits, taxes and workforce housing, there has never been a greater need for the business community to have a voice.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
A: This town has continuous turnover so there are many people who only see you as one thing. I love working with children and being involved, but I also do my job for the directors of this chamber. People sometimes think I’m a tough, nonnegotiable business woman. But when there is an issue, I only know how to go above and beyond for the chamber. I’m tenacious [said while smiling].
Q: What do you want your legacy to be as EVP of the Key West Chamber of Commerce?
A: That I was professional and did everything to the best of my ability — the best thing for the businesses and residents of Key West at all times.