An Affordability Issue
In a region where million-dollar home sales have made headlines for years in some areas, housing prices are starting to spiral upward even in towns where affordability hasn't been an issue. In blue-collar Bradenton, for example, advance-sale prices on new downtown condos start at $450,000. Meanwhile, cities like Cape Coral are touting record numbers of residential housing permits, testifying to the growing demand for homes across the board.
"Affordable housing is very high on our list," of priorities, says the director of Sarasota County's Economic Development Council, Kathy Baylis. She prefers to call it workforce housing, meaning quality housing at reasonable prices. Her neighbors along the Gulf coast agree that the issue is a priority: A group of Collier County developers recently formed the non-profit Collier County Housing Development Corp. to come up with a plan and grant money.
The need will become even more pressing as southwest Florida continues to gain national recognition as a "job magnet," with employers attracted by the area's low cost of doing business, tax breaks and pool of skilled workers. Meanwhile, communities farther south, like Cape Coral, continue to grow rapidly. With three-quarters of Florida's population living within a 150-mile radius of Fort Myers, the region has evolved into a major growth engine.
Major Trend: This cultured and affluent town is abuzz with $1 billion in construction projects, ranging from commercial to mixed-use to residential developments. Downtown is undergoing a major facelift. The city's wealth of retired executives and entrepreneurs continues to fuel the growth in its high-tech sector. The city's challenge will be to continue to grow its skilled workforce.
Business to Watch: Barely a year old, Highwall Technologies has found a promising niche in safeguarding corporate America's wireless networks from hackers and piracy. The company, a favorite in Sarasota's entrepreneurial community, already has the likes of EDS, Computer Associates and about 15 other Fortune 100 companies interested in its security program, which detects all wireless devices, including those that have hacked into a wired network.
Person to Watch: Lindy Smith, CEO of Aladdin Equipment Co., cautions that resolving the county's workforce training issues "is not an overnight fix." Smith runs the pool equipment company her parents started more than 50 years ago. The company is a favorite in economic development circles here because it exports most of its products, bringing money back into the local economy. Smith plays a big role in the county's workforce development efforts, serving both as the incoming chairwoman of the Suncoast Workforce Board and as co-chair of the 21st Century Workforce Study. The bicounty (Manatee and Sarasota) study has already identified eight challenges. Smith is now bringing the interested parties to the table to work together on the issues.
Person to Watch: City Manager Mark B. Roath is managing the state's third-fastest-growing city, North Port, which posted incredible growth in 2003, with more than 2,046 homes built, a new city hall and police station under construction and a population that's almost doubled to 38,000 in four years. Overlooked in the past as Sarasota morphed into a vibrant community, the city isn't in the shadows any more, says Roath. But growth presents its own challenges. With growth this year expected to exceed even last year's numbers, Roath must safeguard the community's goal of maintaining rural living in an urban setting.
Major Trend: "We're coming of age," says Nancy Engel, who's recruited businesses for Bradenton as head of Manatee County's Economic Development Council for the past 20 years. With more than $72 million in capital investments announced last year through the EDC alone and a medical college and 740-seat sports arena coming to town, Bradenton is on a hot streak. The challenge will be to ensure the area's infrastructure keeps pace with development. A focused regional effort involving Sarasota, Manatee and the Tampa Bay Partnership is part of a game plan to forge a more powerful voting bloc in Tallahassee.
Business to Watch: A chance laboratory accident turned into an innovative first-aid product line for Biolife LLC. The product, QR (short for Quick Relief), stops external bleeding in 30 seconds. It hit drugstore shelves last summer and wowed consumers after National Hockey League and National Basketball Association teams began using it. Two-year-old Biolife turned its first profit last June, and 2004 looks just as promising, with a number of potential markets, such as nursing homes, still untapped.
Person to Watch: Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann has a busy year ahead. Up for re-election, she'll be overseeing the first phase of implementing the county's visioning plan, Imagine Manatee, before voters go to the polls. Other issues are pressing transportation needs and funding to preserve environmentally sensitive lands. Von Hahmann is optimistic. "From an economic standpoint, we're in good shape here. We've seen less job losses and more increases in income than other areas."
Business to Watch: Buffalo, N.Y.-based Benderson Development Co.'s decision to relocate its corporate headquarters to Manatee County has helped take some of the sting out of Tropicana's decision to move its front-office operations out of town. The commercial developer manages 2.5 million square feet in the county and has several projects in the works, including a multimillion-dollar business center at University Parkway and I-75 as well as its own new 35,000-sq.-ft. office space.
Major Trend: Tourism is making a comeback in this coastal city, although visitor numbers still haven't returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels. City officials are focused on a newly created Convention and Visitors Bureau, covering greater Naples, Marco Island and the Everglades, to help draw visitors. Naples has seen its other economic engine, construction, slow. Yet, while downtown and north Naples reach saturation on residential building, there is still plenty of room for development in south Naples and the traditional agricultural hub of Immokalee.
Business to Watch: Neighborhood America develops and deploys web-based communications systems for large public planning projects. The firm has pulled in some big-name national projects like the World Trade Center memorial project in New York City, where its latest software, Public Communications System (PCS), has been used to collect public comment on the memorial designs and for project management. It's also in use with the Flight 93 National Memorial project as well as the National Park Service's reopening of the Statue of Liberty. Just 4 years old, the Naples company has grown from two employees to more than 40 and is getting ready to add an office in Washington, D.C., to its roster, which includes Denver, Phoenix and Boston.
Person to Watch: Nicholas Healy Jr. presides over the state's newest university, Ave Maria University. The Catholic liberal arts school, which promotes curricula "based on the teachings of Christ," just opened to 101 students from across the U.S. in September on an interim campus. A permanent facility is being built near Immokalee. The university was founded and is being funded by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan.
Business to Watch: Florida Tradeport is banking on its proximity to Miami as well as its Foreign Trade Zone status to spur businesses to see it as a viable alternative for shipping cargo into and out of southwest Florida. Located in Immokalee, off the beaten path from coastal Naples, at the Regional Airport, the Tradeport has already generated interest from several aircraft companies -- at least two based in Florida -- that are considering the location for operations that would bring better-paying jobs to this traditionally low-income farming town.
Major Trend: Cape Coral wants to be the jewel in southwest Florida's crown, touting its master-planned communities, reasonable home prices (median, $150,900) and young and educated workforce (55% aged 44 or younger) as a corporate executive's dream. The majority of the city's residents commute to neighboring Fort Myers and Collier County for their jobs, and the city is working to assemble tracts of land large enough for commercial and light industrial development to bring in more jobs. That effort is proving difficult because of the way the community was originally preplatted for residential growth. Rezoning means Pine Island Road is about to see long-awaited commercial development.
Person to Watch: Greg Eagle's Eagle Realty of Southwest Florida owns between 60% to 75% of Pine Island Road, prime land in the geographic center of Cape Coral, and he's about to buy up more. He's never counted acres nor put a dollar amount to his land holdings but guesses it's close to half a billion dollars in Cape Coral and surrounding counties. Eagle currently has deals going for two Wal-Marts and a Carrabas restaurant on the corridor. He says he has more deals in the works but can't reveal who's involved because of confidentiality agreements.
Business to Watch: BJM Consulting is run by owner Joe Mazurkiewicz, the mayor of Cape Coral from 1983 to 1993. The company assists new businesses with permitting and government regulations dealing with land-use. Its services will be crucial as the city works to attract a much-needed commercial base to service its burgeoning residential
Business to Watch: Source Interlink has had a stellar year, posting revenue of $92 million in its third quarter. The company owns magazine racks at grocery stores and collects rent from magazines displayed there. It also handles shipping and distribution for major retailers.
Business to Watch: Eastern Avionics International is Charlotte County's poster child. The retailer/wholesaler of new and reconditioned avionics equipment for the general aviation market pays higher-than-average wages and manufactures an exportable product. The company recently secured a $16,269-per-worker training grant from Workforce Florida, the first such grant received in the county.
De Soto/Highlands/Hardee Counties
Major Trend: Florida's Fresh-water Frontier, one of the first rural regional development organizations in the state, has been making progress in promoting the region ever since Gov. Jeb Bush declared it an area of critical concern in 2001. Late last year, the group rolled out one of the most effective joint marketing efforts the area has ever mounted.
The Frontier, a regional development entity comprising De Soto, Highlands and Hardee counties (as well as Glades, Hendry and Okeechobee), recently received a $44,000 Regional Rural Development grant from the state to promote nature-based and heritage tourism in the region.
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