Growth in southwest Florida continues at a steady pace -- eight of the 10 counties in the region posted faster population gains than the state from 2002 to 2003. Collier County alone - Collier and Glades have the widest gap in per capita income of any two counties in the same region: Collier, at $42,926, and Glades, at $17,834 -- a difference of $25,092.posted a population surge -- 4.05% -- almost three times the state rate, while neighboring Lee County rides on its coattails. "We are in a state of incredible transition," says Pam Cox, spokeswoman at the Lee County Economic Development Commission. "We're starting to see fairly rapid growth, particularly in the business sector."
Upscale coastal communities, fueled by a housing boom that shows no signs of slowing -- 12,621 residential building permits were issued last year in Sarasota and Collier counties, where it's next to impossible to buy a single-family home for less than $250,000 -- are having to take a good look at the direction of their growth. As officials work to attract more corporate headquarters and technology-based businesses, they will also have to address the lack of affordable and middle-income housing, which will be a prerequisite for companies looking to relocate to the region.
Commercial construction also remains strong, from the architecturally exciting buildings planned for downtown Sarasota to new Home Depots and super Wal-Marts in the inland communities of Highlands and De Soto counties. Plenty of research and technology parks are also under way, including a bio-medical center in Collier and the Florida Gulf Coast Technology and Research Park in Lee County.
Yet a nagging concern over the economy and potential federal and state funding cuts have county leaders concerned with the sustainability of many of the projects in the works, especially those not based on private development, such as Manatee County's critical transportation planning.
KEY TREND: With three large-scale projects (and more on the way) in the site plan review and permitting stages, the city is about to see a burst of construction activity along a four-block stretch of Main Street, says City Manager Mike McNees.
PERSON TO WATCH: Rev. Willie Holley, chairman of Sarasota's Coalition of African American Leadership, was one of the primary forces behind the Comprehensive Redevelopment Plan for Newtown, approved by the city commission last fall. Now with a recently opened city-staffed redevelopment office there and a Florida Front Porch designation, the "tools are in place" for the real work to begin. Holley is expected to be an ongoing voice in this project.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Startup Florida, a venture development group for high-tech entrepreneurs, wants to fill a funding and networking void for high-tech startups by providing funding at an earlier stage than most venture capital groups. The 2-year-old group launched its incubator in early 2002 in downtown Sarasota and is looking to build more facilities to create a high-tech district in the downtown area.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: With its most recent parent company facing bankruptcy just over two years ago, Chris Craft has staged a comeback. Under new private ownership, the 129-year-old boat manufacturer received recognition from Gov. Jeb Bush for keeping its manufacturing facilities in Sarasota and rehiring many laid off during bankruptcy proceedings. The company employs 200 and has added six boats to its revamped product line.
KEY CHALLENGE: With the mixed-use Bradenton Riverfront Development Project, a private development on the publicly owned and longtime vacant Sandpile, and Bradenton Village, an affordable housing project that has just opened, the city appears to be balancing its residential growth -- but at a cost to taxpayers. New last year: A half-cent sales tax to pay for as many as 18 schools in the next 15 years and a 3% increase in property taxes, of which funds are earmarked for the purchase of environmentally sensitive lands.
PERSON TO WATCH: Ron Allen, president of NDC Construction Co. and a 20-year Bradenton resident, has his finger in many facets of the city and county's redevelopment, from the $120-million Bradenton Riverfront Development to Bradenton Village, Palmetto High School's expansion and a two-phase medical office complex in Lakewood Ranch. He's glad to see the county focus on specific areas rather than its historically sprawled approach. Expect to see more large-scale project announcements this year, Allen says.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Lakewood Ranch unveiled plans late last year for a Main Street that will include a town hall, a pedestrian-friendly shopping district and a nearby medical campus. The development is also hoping to land its own library branch.
PERSON TO WATCH: County administrator Ernie Padgett, concerned over the potential cost-shifting ramifications of federal and state cutbacks on local projects, plans to take a proactive lobbying role in Tallahassee this year. One critical area: The county's transportation projects, which face a potential loss of $200 million in government funding statewide. "If we have to raise property taxes because the state's pulling back, where's the (federal) tax cut?" asks Padgett.
KEY CHALLENGE: Officials are worried that the area depends too much on its residential tax base, which makes up 83% of its total tax revenue. The city is looking to extend its reputation beyond one of luxurious retirement haven. The Board of County Commissioners is working on an incentive package to offset higher-than-average impact fees and land costs as well as to facilitate the permitting process to recruit more businesses. A newly designated zoning of 1,000 acres for research and technology parks should also help.
PERSON TO WATCH: Dick Botthof, who heads the influential Chairman's Circle, an ex officio group of the Economic Development Council, will be helping the county capitalize on the brain power of its executive set. With more chief executive officers per capita than any other region of Florida, according to economic development officials, the city wants to entice more corporate leaders to relocate their headquarters here and is looking to Botthof for direction.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: An aggressive strategy of acquisitions has earned ASG Software Solutions a position of strength in the information technology industry. The privately held global software and professional services company, which employs 150 locally, is poised for yet more growth and is constructing a building in its hometown. The company posted $200 million in revenue, has 40 offices worldwide and boasts big name firms like IBM as its clients.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Hydro-Guard's patented water main automatic flushing device has proven so successful that the Southwest Florida Water Management District rolled out a matching fund program making units available to municipalities at 50% of the purchase price. Hydro-Guard, with its manufacturing facilities in Immokalee and headquarters in Naples, is looking to diversify and enhance its product line. The U.S. military is also a big customer.
KEY CHALLENGE: Fort Myers is trying to shake its image as a retirement haven and recruit the kinds of companies that will diversify its economic base: Medium-sized corporate headquarters of tech, information technology and tech-dependent manufacturing companies. The city should get help from a newly launched marketing campaign promoting the area to site selection professionals and the fact that its fastest-growing segment of the population is in the 18-to-24 range and that Florida Gulf Coast University is proactive in offering programs to train for the needs of the emerging workforce.
PERSON TO WATCH: Robert M. Ball, executive director of the Lee County Port Authority, presides over one of the region's prime economic drivers, the Southwest Florida International Airport, which is in the midst of a major expansion now complicated by new, and unfunded, federal safety mandates. Ball must face the dual challenge of coming up with new funding in the "tens of millions of dollars" to finance the federal specifications as well as keeping the project on schedule.
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Fort Myers' tech darling FindWhat.com continues its exponential growth. The homegrown e-business posted 13 consecutive quarters of growth (4,000% in three years) and recently moved into new office space to accommodate 200 employees. Founded in 1998, the company provides internet-based marketing services for advertisers and operates online marketplaces. For now, FindWhat.com is atypical for the area, but it's exactly the kind of business the county is looking to attract.
PERSON TO WATCH: Florida Gulf Coast University President Bill Merwin has taken an active role in working with the county to develop the kinds of educational programs and research facilities it needs. Recent signature projects: The Florida Gulf Coast Technology & Research Park, of which 20 acres are earmarked for an FGCU incubator and small business development center, plus a new biotech degree program to be offered this fall.
PERSON TO WATCH: Matt DeBoer, county commission chairman, is spearheading a move to capture the county's, until now, scattered growth into a pedestrian-friendly urban setting. At issue: 250,000 quarter-acre lots now vacant in the Murdock area. The challenge: How to bundle them for mixed-use and residential development.
Desoto / Highlands / Hardee Counties
BUSINESS TO WATCH: Everglades Foods is the kind of nonaviation company Sebring Regional Airport Industrial Park is looking to recruit. Previously based in LaBelle, the seasonings company moved into its 6,000-sq.-ft. facility in Sebring this year and has an option on its lease for additional expansions up to 24,000 square feet. The company, which benefited from matching fund grants from rural development and federal low interest loans obtained by the airport, also has plans to form a packaging subsidiary this year.
POPULATION TOTALSAnnual Percentage ChangeCounty20022003'02-'03'98-'03'03-'08Charlotte147,555150,4161.94%2.08%1.82%Collier278,557289,8304.05%4.74%3.45%De Soto33,75834,5422.32%2.60%2.10%Glades10,85811,0651.91%1.85%1.45%Hardee27,49527,9541.67%1.30%1.51%Hendry37,49938,4572.55%2.17%2.22%Highlands90,14191,5681.58%1.73%1.48%Lee467,427477,4342.14%2.73%2.06%Manatee278,107284,1392.17%2.39%2.07%Sarasota341,952348,2421.84%2.06%1.59%FLORIDA16,689,00216,977,8901.73%2.08%1.75%
JOB TOTALSAnnual Percentage ChangeCounty20022003'02-'03'98-'03'03-'08Charlotte40,35141,5893.07%3.86%2.49%Collier106,669109,4812.64%4.09%3.39%De Soto6,4106,4560.72%0.30%1.17%Glades8939344.59%4.15%2.72%Hardee5,3175,3951.47%1.27%1.36%Hendry8,2638,5143.04%0.71%2.22%Highlands20,77321,1521.82%1.48%1.66%Lee181,341186,2302.70%3.39%2.31%Manatee119,371122,1452.32%1.25%2.41%Sarasota166,518169,0171.50%5.17%1.79%FLORIDA7,318,6977,488,0472.31%2.45%2.16%
POPULATION BY AGEYears of AgeCounty0-1415-1920-3940-6465+TOTALCharlotte12.3%4.7%15.8%33.8%33.4%150,416Collier16.5%5.1%20.9%32.5%25.0%289,830De Soto18.4%6.8%28.2%27.4%19.2%34,542Glades17.0%6.1%25.7%32.0%19.2%11,065Hardee22.8%7.6%28.1%27.0%14.5%27,954Hendry24.9%8.8%30.3%25.7%10.3%38,457Highlands15.0%5.3%17.1%29.2%33.4%91,568Lee16.1%5.2%20.3%33.3%25.1%477,434Manatee16.9%5.4%21.0%32.0%24.7%284,139Sarasota12.8%4.5%17.5%33.9%31.3%348,242FLORIDA18.5%6.5%25.4%32.0%17.6%16,977,890
PER CAPITA INCOMEPer Capita
Income 2003Source of IncomeCountyLaborPropertyTransferCharlotte$26,81839.3%35.5%25.2%Collier$42,92645.0%44.1%10.9%De Soto$19,05456.7%19.6%23.7%Glades$17,83458.9%22.3%18.8%Hardee$19,39062.4%15.9%21.7%Hendry$22,36969.0%12.9%18.1%Highlands$22,58240.7%28.9%30.4%Lee$29,84148.2%33.4%18.4%Manatee$33,72656.4%28.1%15.5%Sarasota$42,03044.6%39.5%15.9%FLORIDA$30,65460.2%23.7%16.1%
SOURCE: "Florida Long-Term Economic Forecast 2002," the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Florida. Data are estimates or projections. Population data include military stationed in Florida and inmates. Jobs data measure civilian, nonagricultural wage and salary positions. Property income includes rent, dividend and interest payments; transfer income includes retirement, veterans and unemployment benefits, Medicare, Medicaid and income assistance.