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New Chamber chief was a Plymouth rock

Anthony V. Lonardo, in the words of one of his peers in Plymouth, Mass., brought the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce "into the '80s" during the seven years he served as president of the business organization. As the new president and chief executive officer of the Hernando County Chamber of Commerce, Lonardo will be charged with bringing the Brooksville-based Chamber into the '90s.

And the path is being filled quickly with plenty of changes and challenges.

"What attracted me most was my knowledge of what's happening here in Hernando County _ that is the fantastic growth," said Lonardo, who was hired last week but not introduced publicly until Tuesday morning. "This is an area that is growing and expanding and changing . . . while the Northeast is not."

Facing Lonardo in his new position are a proposed merger with another Chamber of Commerce in the county, the arrival of what promises to become Hernando's biggest employer _ Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s planned 1,000-employee distribution center _ and a host of other issues facing the Chamber's 700 business members.

"Service to our members is very high on the top of my list," Lonardo said. "We will be the alter-ego for business. We're going to do for (members) of the business community what they can't do for themselves.

"And I intend to remind the membership that this Chamber is their Chamber _ it's not a good-old-boy network."

One of the biggest challenges facing Lonardo will be the planned merger of the Hernando County Chamber with the smaller Ridge Manor Chamber of Commerce later this year.

Ridge Manor Chamber members are planning to vote next month on ratification of a merger plan already okayed by the group's directors. Hernando County Chamber members have not yet approved the consolidation.

Among other things, Lonardo said, he will do more lobbying for businesses and business issues in front of local and state governments than past Chamber leaders did.

Governmental affairs and lobbying were Lonardo's forte in Plymouth, he said, and it was one of the things that helped him land a job with the Hernando County Chamber.

"This Chamber has made it a goal to be involved and to represent businesses in legislative efforts," said Morris Porton, chairman of a group of Chamber directors who hired Lonardo. "I think it was mainly his legislative background that caught my attention."

Cliff Manuel Jr., the Chamber's newest chairman of the board, replacing Porton, said he was impressed by Lonardo's more than 20 years of experience in Chambers of Commerce similar in size to the Hernando County Chamber.

Before serving as president of the Plymouth Area Chamber, Lonardo served in management roles at Chambers of Commerce in New York state in Fulton County, Patchogue and Long Island.

"He was an effective leader of the Chamber here," Michael Gallerani, executive director of the Plymouth Development and Industrial Commission, said in a telephone interview. The Plymouth Area Chamber was "a Chamber that needed direction at the time . . . and he brought it into the '80s very well."

Lonardo was hired for the Hernando job from a group of 95 applicants from around the country.

He replaces G. Douglas Hafely Jr., the longtime Hernando County Chamber leader who died in March.