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The Changing Face Of Plant City: Service organizations

Marcus Caswell was looking to make friends and enhance his business contacts when Jeremy Burris, a friend at work, invited him to a weekly Rotary Club luncheon at the Red Rose Inn and Suites.

One luncheon led to another, and before he knew it he was dancing with the strawberry queen at a fundraiser.

The Wish Farms sales executive was hooked.

"I wanted to align myself with the business community and have a good time," he said. "There are a lot of small-business owners here and a lot of good, savvy business professionals."

Caswell, 28, is part of a growing network of Plant City 20- and 30-somethings turning to service organizations to mix with like-minded executives and raise money for charity.

The move comes as Plant City has gotten grayer.

The Census shows that as a percentage of population, the city's 55-and-over crowd nudged up by 1.2 percent after 2000.

Not immune to the shift, the Rotary and Lions clubs saw membership rolls ebb as older members cruised into retirement.

In reaction, the groups pushed to get younger, turning to social media, golf tournaments and contests that had community leaders learning ballroom dancing.

The strategy worked.

Young executives climbed on board, and membership rebounded. The Rotary says its average age plummeted 10 years to about 45. The Lions' average age went from 63 to 54.

The groups' mission hasn't changed — backing local charities — but it's broader now.

The Lions still help the visually impaired, but they've added new fundraisers to appeal to a younger crowd — golf tournaments, hot dog sales at the annual Strawberry Festival and the crowning of the strawberry queen.

"When I first joined everybody thought of the Lions Club as that group that sold brooms and light bulbs" to raise money, Lions president Gail Lyons said. "We've worked hard to turn that around."

The Rotary has been equally ambitious, using social media to boost its message and hosting golf outings and semiannual "Dancing with the Locals" contests.

Rich Shopes, Times staff writer

The Changing Face Of Plant City: Service organizations 06/14/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 5:30am]

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