Sebring is banking on upgrades to its raceway and airport to lure more business.
By Amy Welch
Next month's 50th anniversary race at Sebring International Raceway will highlight both a recently rejuvenated raceway and a related burst in economic development-related spending in rural Highlands County, 60 miles south of Orlando. Now the question becomes whether local officials can capitalize on the changes.
The race, on a winding, 3.7-mile course over what was an airfield during WWII, has drawn crowds for years. Race organizers expect some 100,000 fans from around the world to pour into the area -- five times as many residents as the town of Sebring and 125% of the full-time population of Highlands County. "A lot of these fans have been coming for 10 to 12 years, and now they're bringing their children," says Tres Stephenson, executive director of the raceway. The 12-hour endurance race -- featuring teams of drivers in Ferraris, Corvettes and Porsches, among others -- has seen its appeal enhanced over the years by visits to the track from such drivers as Walter Cronkite, Gene Hackman and Paul Newman.
But even as the race pumped millions into the local economy, the raceway's facilities had been on a steady slide until 1998. Then, wealthy Brasleton, Ga., businessman Don Panoz signed an 80-year lease for the raceway and spent some $13 million rehabilitating the track, pit areas and viewing stands -- changes similar to those he's made at other tracks he owns.
Panoz, who invented the nicotine patch, also built a $6-million, four-story luxury hotel and a race-driving school at the track. He plans to expand the school.
Meanwhile, the Sebring Airport Authority, with the help of state and federal grants and money from the city and Highlands County, has spent about $6 million building a new terminal at the Sebring airport -- visible from the raceway -- expanding runways and adding hangars.
The SAA plans to capitalize on the improvements during race week to attract more businesses to its industrial park. About 20 companies are already there.
Peter McDevitt, the airport authority's chairman, says, "The race is our biggest advantage as far as public relations." But he acknowledges that of the 100,000 people who will show up during race week, only about 500 would be able to invest in a business. The biggest challenge remains convincing businesses that Highlands County, a mainly agricultural community with an aging population and an unemployment rate of about 8%, will provide a fertile base for growth.
Still, leaders say they are in a better position than ever to reel in new business. "Don Panoz gave us the flexibility to create a platform for economic development," McDevitt says.
In the News
Fort Myers -- Construction of the 48,000-sq.-ft. Fifth Third Center recently began at Daniels Parkway and Metro Parkway. The four-story building will be the centerpiece of a 7.6-acre business campus developed by Antaramian Development Corp.
Naples -- F.N.B. Corp. (Nasdaq-FBAN), the largest Florida-based bank holding company, was honored in this year's edition of America's Finest Companies by The Staton Institute. The publication is an annual investment directory that lists U.S.-based companies with at least 10 consecutive years of higher dividends or earnings per share. Fewer than 2% of the nation's 19,000 publicly traded companies qualified for the directory.
Pinellas County -- Pinellas County Fleet Management is working with a Lakeland company to convert waste cooking grease into a diesel fuel additive to power its trucks. County officials say the new method will help reduce emissions, cut the cost of fueling the trucks and give the fleet vehicles more power. The only drawback: The exhaust perfumes the air with the smell of frying food.
Polk County -- San Jose, Calif.-based Calpine Corp., an electric power company, recently broke ground on its $250-million, 540-megawatt Osprey Power Center. The company plans to invest about $40 million more on a peaker turbine in the county.
Sarasota -- Gil Lazier, former dean of the Florida State University School of Theatre, is the new director of the FSU/ASOLO Conservatory for Actor Training. Lazier has been involved with the conservatory for more than 20 years and replaces Brant Pope, who left to take a position at Pennsylvania State University.
St. Petersburg -- Jabil Circuit (NYSE-JBL), an electronics manufacturer, reported an 82% drop in first-quarter profit and says it will miss its earnings targets for the second quarter. More job cuts are expected.
St. Petersburg Police Chief Mack Vines was fired after just two months on the job after comparing a black suspect's behavior to that of an orangutan. Since his firing, hundreds of citizens have written letters to Mayor Rick Baker blasting the move, which Baker justified in part based on the poor relations in the past between the police and the city's minority community. The city named Chuck Harmon, a 19-year veteran of the department, to replace Vines.
The City Council voted to raze the 77-year-old First Baptist Church at First Avenue North and Fourth Street to make way for an $8-million expansion of St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral next door. St. Peter's, built 103 years ago, bought the property 11 years ago, but preservationists had fought to keep the abandoned building intact.
Tampa -- Capitalizing on the low-carbohydrate diet fad, Go2Pharmacy (Nasdaq-GORX), a health-food company, has developed Lean Protein Bites, the first low carbohydrate chocolate snack. The 8-year-old company plans to release low carbohydrate chocolate truffles and hard candies and has already introduced a low-carbohydrate line of chips.
On the day his impeachment hearing was to begin, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Robert Bonanno instead resigned. The investigation likely would have exposed details of a longtime affair with a courthouse employee and the discovery of Bonanno rummaging around a colleague's office after hours.
The city recently broke ground on a new phase of its 28-square-block cultural district. The district's signature building, the new Tampa Museum of Art, is being designed by architect Rafael Vinoly and is expected to cost about $27 million. The city also plans to include a new Tampa Bay History Center, additions to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, a riverwalk, an expanded waterfront park and a refurbished public library.
The Tampa Bay area has been adding jobs faster than any other urban area in the nation, according to the Department of Labor. The number of employed people in the area grew 3.8% from October 2000 to October 2001. Three other Florida cities also made the top 10: West Palm Beach-Boca Raton was third; Orlando was fourth; and Jacksonville was 10th.
Sykes Enterprises (Nasdaq-SYKE), an international call center operator, laid off 230 employees, including 32 at its Tampa headquarters, and closed two call centers. The move is part of an effort to cut costs by moving jobs to cheaper overseas markets.
Jobs: Pinellas Snapshot
Pinellas County Economic Development reports that 10% of Florida's high-tech employees work in Pinellas County. Other PCED facts:
-- No. 2 in the state in manufacturing employment with 41,000 employees and an annual payroll of about $1.25 billion.
-- No. 3 in the number of manufacturing companies, 1,335.
-- No. 2 in plastics firms, with 107.
-- No. 3 in retail trade businesses, with 4,736 firms employing 79,000.
-- Home to 22% of laser and optics firms in Florida's 13-county High-Tech Corridor.
-- Home to 53% of biomedical and pharmaceutical firms in the High-Tech Corridor.