Fifty years ago, the population of Manatee County stood at around 70,000 -- doubling in residents from the previous decade. Growth brought the community closer as neighborhoods expanded and new businesses opened.
After that population boom, the burgeoning business organizations in Bradenton and Palmetto merged in 1962 to form the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. Today, about 323,000 residents purchase goods and services from the chamber's ever growing membership -- which now stands at a whopping 1,994.
While the Chamber celebrated its achievements at its 50th Annual Dinner last week, the organization's roots extend well past the century mark.
The county's business community first organized as the Bradenton Board of Trade in June 1889, and the current chamber plans a big celebration for the 125th anniversary in 2014.
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Even back in the 1800s, Manatee's business community pursued aggressive policies to improve the county's economy. According to accounts in the weekly Manatee River Journal, the Board of Trade sent a delegation to Congress to lobby for channel improvements at the mouth of the Manatee River and secure a rail line connecting Tampa and Bradenton. By 1916, membership stood at 88 and the slogan then was "A Bigger and Better Bradentown."
Interest in the business organization ebbed and flowed over the years, but by 1926 city directories listed the Board of Trade as the Bradenton Chamber of Commerce.
That same year, the Chamber became the first organization to recommend a bridge be built from Piney Point to St. Petersburg soon followed by the St. Pete Chamber. But the Depression and World War II stalled the idea until the Sunshine Skyway Bridge became a reality in 1954.
Through the years, interest and participation have grown stronger and stronger with award-winning results. Last year, Manatee Chamber of Commerce again won distinction as the largest chamber in the region -- size being a key measure of business networking and collaboration leading to economic development. Plus, Manatee earned Florida Chamber of the Year Awards in 2007, 2004 and 2000 and the National Chamber of the Year Award in 2007.
The Chamber's mission is straightforward: "To build a positive business environment while enhancing the community's quality of life." The two goals are inexorably linked. One cannot cultivate economic growth and prosperity without a desirable place to live.
This is evidenced by the chamber's leadership role in improving the community through the Manatee Chamber Foundation, established to advance various matters of public concern -- from education, human relations and minority issues to technology, housing and economics. Success comes with the "acceleration of both the quality and quantity of economic growth and employment opportunities," as the chamber states.
Two of the foundation's two initiatives address our quality of life alongside their economic implications: the Manatee County Health Care Study, an essential blueprint for increasing the number of doctors and nurses in the medical community; and Economic Impact Study of the Arts & Cultural Community, a document that proves the every increasing value culture brings to growth and our quality of life.
Both initiatives have borne fruit. A new residency program at Manatee Memorial Hospital holds the potential to lure more physicians here. The arts study gave impetus to Realize Bradenton's 10-year cultural master plan to leverage culture and heritage to boost economic development, tourism and civic engagement.
With more than 1,500 pages of business and community information on its website, 46 committees and task forces, and networking opportunities, the Chamber is dedicated to helping businesses succeed.
Manatee County is fortunate to be home to such a highly motivated and successful Chamber of Commerce.
Chamber history sought
Looking forward to the 125th anniversary in 2014, the Chamber is seeking help in discovering more about its history. For instance:
n Mrs. I.F. Jones was issued a lifetime membership in the Bradentown Board of Trade, the first and only woman bestowed with this honor. Does anyone know of her or her descendants who might share some history?
n W. Manning served as the Bradenton Chamber's top executive from 1922 until 1965. Bob Beall, founder of the Bealls department store chain in 1915, brought spring training baseball here in the 1920s as a member of the Bradenton Board of Trade and served the organization for 49 years. Information about both men is also sought.
Contact the Chamber at Neil Spirtas at 941-748-4842, ext. 124, and via email at Neil@manateechamber.com.