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Computer clubs scramble to hang onto members

[Times photo: Jill Sagers]
John Beach, left, of St. Petersburg, talks programming with members of the Tampa Bay Computer Society this summer. Membership in the group has dropped sharply in the past seven years, which its president attributes
to the Internet’s growing influence.


© St. Petersburg Times, published August 14, 2000

Once, members went to clubs for computer support and camaraderie, but now the Internet provides that, club officials say.

Dave Dockery was a worried man when he became president of the Tampa Bay Computer Society in January. He has watched membership slide from 1,800 seven years ago to 700.

Dockery, a professional computer consultant and a 16-year member of the society, made increasing membership a priority. Members put up posters in libraries and post offices to publicize the group's activities, and he added a sales pitch for his organization when giving talks on computers in libraries across Pinellas County.

So far, he has seen few results.

Dockery is not alone in his anxiety. Computer user groups statewide have reported declining membership in the past decade, and many failed to survive. The Florida Association of Computer User Groups, an umbrella organization, has seen its numbers erode from a peak of about 300 groups four years ago to 46.

Dockery knows how computer groups can help people learn technology. He benefitted from a group in St. Louis more than 20 years ago when he was about to give up on a newly purchased Osborne. While he understands the advantages of such groups, he wants to figure out why people are dropping out. And he has a theory.

"I think it's the Internet," said Dockery, 53.

One of his group's biggest appeals used to be its gigantic software library, he said, all of which now can be downloaded online. Moreover, users no longer need a group to solve computer problems. Post questions on the Internet and someone, somewhere will have an answer.

Leaders of other groups agree the Web is to blame. Mary Sheridan, president of the Tampa PC Users Group, says her group's membership has dropped to 60 from a high of 800. And the membership of of the Bay Area Mac Users Group dwindled from about 400 to 300 at one point, although the birth of iMac has added members, according to Virginia Chilcote, editor of the group's newsletter.

The picture is not bleak everywhere. The Computer Club at Sun City Center, the retirement community in Hillsborough County, increased its membership from 1,500 last year to 2,000, without offering advanced classes or special interest group discussions that others host. It doesn't get into programming or Web site design, sticking to the basics.

Among the topics that are in demand with Sun City Center seniors are explanations of basic computer jargon, word processing, e-mail, America Online, the Internet and Macintosh operation.

"Most of the people who join have got a computer recently and want to get some training. New members are new users," said Jack Fischer, 73, the director of communications for the club. While new buyers are joining, old users are remaining because tips and industry updates disseminated by the club keep them interested.

While the Sun City Center club draws from the built-in base of its 18,000 residents, Dockery is facing a more daunting task in recruiting throughout the bay area.

The scope of membership and differing skill levels mean the group has to offer everything from the ABCs of computer use for novices to the niceties of C++ programming for advanced users. That spreads the group thin.

Looking to fix the membership slide, Dockery and other officers placed dozens of calls to people who quit to pinpoint their reasons for leaving. Even that was unsuccessful.

"We couldn't really find one or two or three reasons. Everyone had a different reason," Dockery said. "It's unfortunate because if we could, we can think of ways to fix them."

Area computer user groups

Bay Area Mac Users Group meets the second Wednesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. for beginners, 7:30 p.m. for regular meeting, Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive. Send e-mail to, or call (727) 796-2929.

Central Pasco County Computer Club meets the second and fourth Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m., Land O'Lakes Branch Library, 2818 Collier Parkway.

Citrus Macintosh Users Group meets the fourth Friday of each month at 6 p.m., Crystal Oaks Clubhouse, State Road 44, east of Crystal River. Send e-mail to for information.

Crystal River Users Group meets the second Monday of each month at 7 p.m., Beverly Hills Civic Association Recreation Building, 77 Civic Circle, Beverly Hills. Send e-mail to for information. Elfers Computer Helper Organization (ECHO) meets the second Friday of each month at 3 p.m., Elfers Senior Center, 4136 Barker Drive. For information, send e-mail to

Hernando Computer Club meets first and third Mondays, with classes second and fourth Mondays and Wednesdays, from 7 to 9 p.m., Shriners Hall, Montour Street, Spring Hill. Call (352) 592-0070 or check Hernando Macintosh Computer Club meets the fourth Thursday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Weeki Wachee Senior Citizen Club. For information, send e-mail to

Internet Business Association International monthly luncheon meeting ($20 members, $25 non-members and $35 walk-ins), Rusty Pelican restaurant, 2425 Rocky Point Drive, Tampa. Check or call (813) 963-1251.

Palm Harbor Library Computer Users Group meets the third Monday of each month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the library, 2330 Nebraska Ave. Send e-mail to or call (727) 784-3332.

Pasco Area Computer Users Group meets the first and third Tuesday of each month at 7 p.m. at the Bradford United Church of Christ, 7900 Fort King Road, Zephyrhills. Call (352) 588-3243 or send e-mail to

Suncoast Computer Users Group meets the second Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. in the community room, Gulfport Library, 5501 28th Ave. S. For information, call (727) 343-2668 or send e-mail to

Suncoast Linux Users Group meets the second Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m., Science Room D03, Thomas Jefferson High School, 4401 W Cypress Street, Tampa. It also meets the fourth Saturday of each month at 10 a.m., Dunedin Public Library, 223 Douglas Ave. For information, check

Suncoast 99ers Computer User Group meets the second Thursday of each month at 7 p.m., Salvation Army meeting room, 3800 Ninth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Send e-mail to

Suncoast Webgrrls meets the second Thursday of each month from 6 to 8 p.m., Training Center, W Cypress Street, Tampa. For information, call (813) 760-7744 or check

Tampa Bay Computer Society meets the third Tuesday of each month at 6:45 p.m., Clearwater Central Catholic High School, Haines Bayshore Road. For information, call (727) 443-4433.

Tampa PC Users Group meets the second Wednesday of each month, Museum of Science and Industry, 4801 E Fowler Ave., Tampa. A Windows discussion group starts at 6 p.m., with the regular meeting starting at 6:30 p.m. For information, check or call (813) 879-3602.

West Pasco Mac Users Group meets the second Wednesday of each month at 10:30 a.m. and the fourth Thursday of each month at 7 p.m., Embassy Hills Civic Center, 9509 Palm Ave., Port Richey. For information, send e-mail to or check

- Clubs or user groups are welcome to submit information for the club list, which will run occasionally. Information about specific meetings, including discussion topics, should be sent at least one week before the publication date. Send e-mail to

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