LAKEWOOD RANCH -- As much as Jonathan Fleece pressured outgoing Chairwoman Rae Dowling of the Manatee Chamber of Commerce to toast her accomplishments in 2014, she wouldn't down the shot of whiskey he handed her in front of more than 500 members and guests Thursday night.
Call it a show of youthful enthusiasm.
Fleece, a managing partner at the Bradenton law firm Blalock Walters and the new 2015 chamber chairman, said he wanted Dowling to know how much he appreciated her work during a year in which the 125-year-old organization with 2,102-members grew to maintain its status as the largest chamber in the Tampa Bay area. He told her the 52nd annual membership dinner was the perfect opportunity to tip one back to celebrate.
Dowling never did take that drink on stage. Fleece's willingness to take her gavel was what she values most, she said.
"He is truly a leader among leaders," Dowling said.
Following a year in which Dowling worked to increase chamber membership satisfaction, Fleece said the organization now must serve the needs of millennial workers. He said the chamber will encourage more members of its 40-and-under Manatee Young Professionals group to take on more leadership in the chamber and the community.
That leadership, he said, will be directed to encourage area employers to offer more internships and apprenticeships to high school and college students. Fleece, at 47, one of the youngest chamber chairs in years, said the organization will encourage developers and builders to provide more housing that is appealing and
affordable for young professionals.
"We need our young professionals influencing the decisions that will affect how our county will look 25 years from now," he said.
Fleece took time out at the end of the night to honor Neil Spirtas, the longtime executive vice president who retires from the chamber this spring.
"Neil's positive and powerful impact will be felt for generations to come," he said.
Spirtas, who said he plans to do some teaching and other work-related projects after leaving the chamber, thanked the assembled crowd.
"I'm really lucky," he said, tearing slightly. "I've had the privilege of a 30-year ride at the Manatee Chamber."
With that, Fleece got everyone in the room to raise a glass for a toast.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.thr