Manatee Chamber celebrates business resurgence, successful history

mjohnson@bradenton.comFebruary 7, 2014 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- With the stress of the Great Recession a fading memory, officials say workforce development, influencing the political process and paying off debt are the top goals for the Manatee Chamber of Commerce in 2014.

Plus, this is the year the Chamber turns on its first real app.

About 470 chamber members and guests turned out for the 51st annual dinner gala at the Polo Grill in Lakewood Ranch. Chamber members laid out the agenda for the year and looked back on its history.

Bob Bartz, Chamber president since 1982, recounted the beginnings of the organization, when it was known as the Bradenton Board of Trade when formed in 1889. The organization took on its current name in 1962 when the Bradenton and Palmetto chambers merged.

The Chamber now has more than 2,000 business members, which employ more than 76,000 people.

It is the largest chamber membership in the Tampa Bay area, officials claim.

During a video shown during the event, several past Chamber presidents recounted pivotal moments since the merger:

• Fred Langford, the first president of the modern

Chamber, said he knew the two chambers were doing the right thing when they merged.

• Mike Carter, 1990 chairman, recounted building giant grills to cook food for the first Hob Nob Barbecue for the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.

• Sue Scott, the first woman elected Chamber chair, recalled launching the organization's first website in 1995.

• And, even though the economy started to tank in 2007, then-chair Tom Dahany only had good memories of the year in which the Chamber was named national chamber of the year and won its third Florida chamber of the year title.

There were contentious times in the organization's past, too.

In the mid-1980s, the organization formed a Political Action Committee to fund the candidacies of politicians aligned with Chamber goals. Some officeholders at the time did not.

The Chamber no longer funds the PAC. It doesn't have to, said Rae Dowling, incoming chairwoman, during her keynote speech. The Chamber met more than 80 percent of its legislative goals through lobbying elected officials in 2013, she said.

The Chamber will use the same strategy this year.

"Advocacy will continue to be a priority for the Manatee Chamber," she said.

Other plans include paying off debt from the construction of the Chamber's Lakewood Ranch office and launching its new app, which will guide users searching for Chamber member businesses.

The Chamber will also start a Workforce Development Task Force to determine how to best help local businesses find and develop needed talent.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business writer, can be contacted at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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