Two Southwest Florida Realtor associations will soon merge, a move their leaders say will allow them to provide better services to members, give them a bigger voice at the state and national level, and maybe even lower their dues.

After a two-month exploratory process, the members of the Sarasota Association of Realtors (SAR) and Manatee Association of Realtors (MAR) voted to merge on Sept. 16. The merger will take effect Jan. 1, and the new group will be called the Suncoast Realtor Association, pending approval by the National Association of Realtors, the trade groups said.

Combined, the memberships of both associations include about 5,250 Realtors and 489 affiliates, such as title, mortgage and moving companies. Sarasota is the larger of the two with about 3,600 members.

This consolidation may be part of a coming wave of Realtor association mergers. David Phillips, CEO of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, has estimated that implementation of NAR’s core standards, approved in May, could reduce the number of Realtor associations from around 1,400 today to about 1,000 within 10 years.

Leaders of the Sarasota and Manatee associations say the standards were not the impetus for the merger — both say they would have met the standards on their own.

But the “spirit” behind the standards and a “merger kit” provided by NAR helped the associations get discussions off the ground, saving time and money, said Peter Crowley, the Sarasota association’s president.

The kit’s sample agreement was helpful because, “Coming from NAR, it provided some credibility and it wasn’t an agreement crafted by anybody’s attorney,” Crowley said. “It helped to establish that neutrality out of the gate.”

The associations ultimately hired counsel to oversee the merger and documentation, but it helped that they didn’t have to start from scratch, he added.

The combined association will apply for funding under NAR’s core standards program in order to cover the legal fees and cost of its communication efforts, including a merger website. The program offers between $15,000 and $25,000 to facilitate mergers between associations.

Whether or not a merger was precipitated by the need to comply with the standards does not not matter — grants will be available to merging associations regardless of the reasons behind the merger, NAR says.

“The main motivator is just the fact that the areas that both the Sarasota and Manatee associations cover used to be two distinct markets and now have evolved into a regional market,” Crowley said.

“It made a lot of just logical sense that we would have one Realtor organization. And with the economies of scale that go along with the merger, we’re hopeful that we can provide even greater levels of service at an even lower cost going forward.”

The merger will boost the combined association’s purchasing power to more than 5,000 members and allow the associations to get rid of duplicated expenses, Crowley added.

Sherry Richardson Grooms, president of the Manatee association, said association leaders hope that the merger will mean they can lower dues for members, but that they “can’t guarantee it.” Regardless, some members and affiliates who were previously paying for membership in both associations will now save, she said.

Grooms said the combined association may also open new satellite offices, in addition to the associations’ current separate offices in Lakewood Ranch and Sarasota. The geographic area covered by the merged association is perhaps 20 miles wide, she said, so bringing services such as education classes and lockboxes to those areas could be very beneficial to members.

“If dues can be reduced and we can offer them more services, more education at different locations, that’s the best for our membership,” Grooms said.

Being a larger local association will also give members a bigger voice at the state and national association level and in government affairs, she added.

Staff job descriptions may change, but the associations don’t anticipate layoffs, except for one. Beginning next year, Mary Kay Brickey, the current executive vice president of the Manatee association, will be hired as a consultant for 12 months to help with the transition, but she will not be part of the new association’s leadership. Kathy Roberts, current CEO of the Sarasota association, will head the merged association.

Brickey has been “very supportive” of the merger, Crowley said.

Between now and Jan. 1, the trade groups will begin a strategic planning process; prepare a budget for 2015; appoint volunteers to serve on committees; create a new logo; and develop a new website, Grooms said.

The Sarasota and Manatee associations had talked about merging at various times over the last several years, but ran into a variety of issues.

“Quite a while ago the MLS was an obstacle,” Crowley said, but now both associations are part of My Florida Regional MLS, Florida’s largest multiple listing service, so that took that issue “off the table.”

Personal issues and political agendas were also a factor before, but Crowley said it was fortunate that, this time, board leaders were “willing to put their egos aside and do what was best for the organization.”

Along with the merger vote, the associations’ members approved new board members. After the merger, the combined association’s board will consist of 18 officers and directors, down from 23 board members currently.

As the smaller association, Grooms said Manatee members worried about the trade group’s heritage — 2014 is the association’s 100th anniversary.

“They didn’t want to lose that, which we won’t. [The hundred years are] carrying over to the [merged] association,” she said.

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