Sarasota's reputation as a tough nut for developers lingers even as construction cranes rise over downtown. Columbus, Ga.-based Wynnton Group has begun building a 256-unit residential project, Renaissance of Sarasota. Wynnton also has proposed a 14-story office tower and has lined up tenants, notably Bank of America. Construction of the Ritz Carlton Sarasota was scheduled to begin in March.
In all, the city estimates $364 million in construction is under way. Despite these projects, no one should be fooled that Sarasota has become a doormat for developers. "It's a long and tedious process," says Kansas developer Kevin Daves, who spent three years getting city approval for his Ritz Carlton.
The self-proclaimed "city of urban amenities with small town living and feeling" wants to do a better job of channeling growth. Limits on the bulk, not just height, of new projects may be coming. The city also worries about traffic. It already has a reputation for clogged roads in the busy winter season. The city spent $325,000 to hire Miami "new urbanism" firm Duany/Plater-Zyberk to draw up a plan for the future of downtown and select neighborhoods. A weeklong "charrette" will be held this month.
Person to Watch
Wichita, Kan., developer Kevin Daves, 46, plans to become a permanent Sarasota resident as his 270-room Ritz Carlton Sarasota goes forward. The 17-story project, which broke ground recently, includes 50 condominiums priced from $695,000 to $4.3 million. All have sold.
Businesses to Watch
MRSL, a unit of Fairfax, Va.-based ManTech International Corp. with annual sales of $10 million, employs 50 making radar detection equipment for fighter aircraft. Jim Green, vice president and general manager, also chairs the Suncoast Technology Alliance, a high-tech industry group.
Downtown Sarasota-based Intelliworxx Inc. designs voice-driven mobile computing hardware and software for cars, defense and other uses. The company plans to more than double its employee headcount to 85 within the year.
Sarasota County, with a per capita personal income of $33,289, well above the state average of $23,285, isn't a cheap place to live. The county's population also is well above the state average in the share of its income from investments -- 41% compared to the state average of 23%. Sarasota's median house price last year reached $209,000. Condos fetched $159,900, but that average reflects lower prices for inland properties. The $150,000-range is the bottom of the waterfront market. A three-bedroom house in good condition in a good neighborhood inland runs in the $140,000s. Or rent a modern, two-bedroom apartment for about $700.
Bradenton: Action on the "Sandpile"
When a proposed 18-screen Regal Cinemas project opens downtown, it will be the first significant new project in 15 years on the "sandpile," Bradenton's 30-year-old question mark. The sandpile, a 23-acre waterfront site created with fill on the Manatee River, has been a development conundrum for a generation.
A lack of suitable roads, more inviting sites and opposing views on how it should be developed all contributed to delays in making the artificially created extension of Bradenton's waterfront an important amenity. Most recently, problems with a railroad line through the site threaten to delay the movie house project into 2001.
The sandpile also has vexed city officials. Most recently, Bill Evers, mayor for 20 years, linked it to his defeat at the polls last November.
Evers blamed his loss to former newspaper editor Wayne Poston in part on "all the big-shot businessmen in Bradenton I wouldn't cave in to."
The two he cites by name, developer Dan Blalock and builder Mike Carter, tried unsuccessfully to interest the city in a project for the sandpile.
Blalock and Carter did help bankroll Poston, but both say it didn't have anything to do with the sandpile. Evers, Carter complains, had become a "depressant to growth" downtown. Blalock says Evers and the former council stopped listening to the people.
Poston, whose tenure as executive editor of the Bradenton Herald matched Evers' time as mayor, capitalized on promises to make Bradenton government more inclusive and "neighborhood-based." Poston, 56, calls for the "right kind of growth" and wants the city to develop a vision and a marketing strategy.
Poston "is very pro-business and he is very pro-active," says Bill Theroux, Downtown Development Authority executive director. "Those are two significantly different attributes than his predecessor had." (Evers disagrees, pointing to the Holiday Inn Riverfront built in the 1980s on the sandpile and other projects.)
Poston steps in as downtown Bradenton revs up. The sandpile aside, scattered entrepreneurs have been rehabbing 1920s-era buildings downtown. A new county judicial center is on the board. Main Street will begin to get spruced up in May with new lighting and brick-paver sidewalks.
People to Watch
Mike Carter, who does large-scale commercial projects in 24 states under the Carter Construction name, is restoring three small, two-story, 1920s era buildings on Main Street in his hometown of Bradenton. The three should set the benchmark for quality downtown rehabs.
Robert M. Beall II is chairman and CEO of Bradenton-based Beall's Department Stores, which will break $500 million in revenues for the first time this fiscal year. Beall's 5,634-employee company will make improvements to its 270,000-sq.-ft. distribution center, hire staff to support e-commerce, and recently added an in-house photography studio and office space to support growth. It employs 1,054 in Manatee County and plans to hire up to 100 more workers locally this year.
Businesses to Watch
SMR, the developer of 5,500-acre Lakewood Ranch, has started the governmental approval process for another 5,000 acres north of State Road 70. The last of the five residential projects within the original 5,500-acre tract will open for sales late this year. SMR also should chalk up its 2,000th home sold by late summer.
Port Manatee had back-to-back record years in tonnage and revenues and projects another record this year with 5.8 tons and $8.4 million in revenues. A three to five-year expansion will increase linear dockage by 50%. Angling to profit from its proximity to western Cuba should U.S. law change -- the port is closest of all Florida seaports -- port director Dave McDonald and special projects director Steve Tynbal visited the Cuban Interests Section to "meet the players."
Tropicana Products, a unit of Pepsi that employs 3,200 locally, is pushing global expansion and expanding its headquarters in Bradenton.
Waterfront homes run $500,000. Newer three-bedroom homes east of I-75 cost about $190,000, while older stock west of I-75 can be had for $150,000. Rents for a two-bedroom apartment are in the $700s. The median home price in the Sarasota-Bradenton metro area is $129,400.
Naples: Electing Slower Growth
Real estate brokers typically sound like unabashed boosters. So why does Mardi Moorman sound ambivalent? "Traffic is just outrageous," complains the Stone Realty broker and president of the Naples Area Board of Realtors. Still, she adds, "People are coming here. We have to provide a place for them to live."
Maybe. Voters in the Naples municipal election in February showed they are more than ambivalent about additional growth. The seven-member city council now has four members seen as anti-growth. Voters also imposed a 42-foot height limit on new commercial construction and bought a 9.5-acre tract to save it from development.
Six-year council member Fred Tarrant -- not shy with a dramatic verbal phrase -- says voters rescued Naples from "what could have been a complete train wreck" of runaway growth. Tarrant, 73, a 15-year Naples resident, favors "controlled, conservative growth."
Truth be told, Naples doesn't have much room to grow. But clearly some residents fear that now that the city has reached build-out, older dwellings and structures will be torn down and replaced with ones that add people and traffic to an already congested core. Tarrant, joined by fellow council members photographer Penny Taylor, contractor Joseph Herms and retired banker Bill MacIlvaine, aims to curb Naples' propensity to grow. A three-vote check on the majority will come from attorney Tamela Wiseman, fashion businessman Gary Galleberg and newly elected Mayor Bonnie MacKenzie, a four-year council member and the city's first woman mayor.
People to Watch
Scott F. Lutgert is chief executive of Park Shore Beachfront developer The Lutgert Cos. His 37-unit project The Regent sold out in two days with 43 buyers on stand-by for the units, priced $3.9 million to $10.75 million. Its 15th Provence high-rise is scheduled for a June completion.
Alan D. Reynolds, 44, president and chief executive of WilsonMiller, a design and engineering consulting firm, in two years has increased employment from 210 to 310 and added a Tampa office.
Business to Watch
Host Marriott Corp. has begun construction of the $60-million, 295-room Ritz-Carlton Naples Golf Resort, an extension of the existing hotel two miles away. Opening is set for late 2001.
Naples reigns as Florida's most expensive housing market with a median price of $201,300. Three-bedrooms start at $250,000. On the water, homes start at $500,000. Two-bedroom apartments rent for around $1,000 a month. How do working stiffs afford such prices? They don't. Collier has the highest per-capita personal income in the region and is behind only Indian River and Martin statewide in the percentage of income derived from investments.
Fort Myers/Bonita Springs: Southwest Corridor
When the unincorporated community of Bonita Springs became a city (pop. 29,000) on Dec. 31, it underscored the steady urbanization of Lee County from Fort Myers to Bonita Springs, 25 miles to the south. Already Bonita Springs has the hallmark of hundreds of Florida cities before it: lots of real estate action. In fact, the new city's biggest employers are real estate companies: Watermark Communities Inc. and Bonita Bay Properties.
The rise of Bonita Springs affirms the vision of David B. Shakarian, founder of vitamin company General Nutrition Corp. Shakarian died in 1984, just before his Bonita Bay Properties launched its signature, 3,300-home development on the Gulf of Mexico. The project will be built out this year -- except for a few luxury condo towers still to come -- but the company has plenty more on tap in the area. In January, it launched the 1,647-acre Mediterra development straddling Lee and Collier counties. The company says it's years ahead of schedule for home sales at the Brooks, a 2,532-acre project between Fort Myers and Bonita Springs.
Contributing to the growth of Bonita Springs and Fort Myers is the high price of housing in Naples, 15 miles to the south. "Naples has gone nuts. Collier County has gone nuts," says Fort Myers broker Wayne Martin of Arvida Realty Services. "We're an alternative for people who want waterfront." To complement residential growth, mall builders Simon Properties Inc. of Indianapolis and the Richard E. Jacobs Group of Cleveland each wants to build malls of up to 1.9-million-sq.-ft., one in Estero and one in Fort Myers.
People to Watch
Robert M. Ball, executive director of the booming Southwest Florida International Airport, wants a new, three-concourse terminal building, estimated to cost $356 million.
Al Hoffman Jr., the acquisitive-minded CEO of Bonita Springs-based real estate company Watermark Communities Inc., is still digesting the company's purchase of 14,800 acres in Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Businesses to Watch
Fort Myers-based women's apparel retailer Chico's FAS plans to add 32,000 square feet of office and design space to its 115,000-sq.-ft. facility. Founders Marvin J. Gralnick and Helene Gralnick in February signed a new, three-year employment contract, and company stock recently split 2-for-1. Chico's plans to open 45 stores this year, release a catalog in the fall and launch e-commerce on its website in May.
Hyatt Hotel Corp., based in Chicago, is building a 450-room Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort in Bonita Springs' Pelican Landing development. Opening is scheduled for fall 2001.
In Lee County, the median price for a single-family home last year was $106,600, up from $98,400 the year before. But lots of lower-end properties in such places as North Fort Myers skew the numbers. Fort Myers Beach homes can start at $450,000 facing the Gulf of Mexico and $289,000 on the bay. Realtors say $140,000 buys a three-bedroom house, perhaps with canal access to the gulf. An up-to-date two-bedroom apartment with good amenities can be had for $600 a month.
The Berlin Wall of Sarasota County development begins coming down this year as the county decides how to implement an Urban Land Institute recommendation that village-style development take place east of Interstate 75. The highway has been the county's "urban containment" barrier for decades. But an institute recommendation, accepted in February by county commissioners, calls for in-fill development west of the interstate and, to the east, a system of villages and greenways, playing off 164 square miles of environmentally sensitive land, a lot of it owned by the county. On the workforce front, finding adequate labor likely will continue to be a critical issue in both Manatee and Sarasota counties in the year ahead. Forecasted unemployment for 2000 is a very low 2.1%.
Business to Watch
Panther Ridge Communities Ltd., Frank Buskirk, president, opened up a new, 257-home phase, The Preserve, featuring one-acre homesites.
Lee County in recent years has racked up a number of major business relocations, mostly in Fort Myers, with the likes of computer industry researcher the Gartner Group and PPG Industries choosing to base operations here. In 1999, however, interest fell off. Lee County logged 269 fewer inquiries from companies considering relocation and expansion -- 300 compared to 569.
Why the drop? Prospective employers' fear of not finding adequate labor partly explains it. A study commissioned by the county's economic development group, the Horizon Council, found that employers have a difficult time filling most jobs. Unemployment is at 2.7%.
Business to Watch
CallTech Communications, a Columbus, Ohio, company, opens a 150-employee, in-bound call center in Fort Myers this month. It will handle calls from AOL/CompuServe, Universal Studios, Priceline.com and BellSouth.
What's not happening -- meaning growth outside urban Naples -- is likely to be the real estate focus in Collier County this year. Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Cabinet last year imposed a moratorium on most development in the county's rural fringe and rural areas. The state says the county's growth plan doesn't adequately protect its natural resources.
Major owners of rural land, including the Collier family, have hired consulting firm WilsonMiller Inc. to gather information for a new plan to be filed with the state. The county will work on the plan for the rural fringe, where most development pressure lies.
Business to Watch
Shaw Aero Cos. finished its expansion into a 140,000-sq.-ft., 253-employee facility. The Naples-based company develops fuel and bathroom systems for airplanes.
Charlotte, Glades, Hendry
In November, Glades County restarted a dormant economic development council. Good thing. Glades' per-capita income is less than half the state average. "We do have a Burger King, thank you very much," cracks one local. Glades wants to create an industrial park and hopes Lake Okeechobee will prove to be a lure for tourists. In Charlotte, the county government in January for the first time said it will participate with the heretofore private economic development council. Charlotte believes a site on I-75 by its airport can be set up as an industrial site. Hendry already has its Airglades Industrial Park.
Businesses to Watch
Duke Energy continues to evaluate a Charlotte County site for a power plant. The company awaits a state Supreme Court ruling on whether it can build in New Smyrna Beach.
The sugar harvest ends this month amid fears that a 25% drop in sugar prices will force Clewiston-based United States Sugar Corp. to lay off some of its 3,500 employees. So far, the company has coped by cutting other expenses.
DeSoto, Hardee, Highlands
Cattle and citrus still reign, but all three counties continue attempts to diversify. Hardee and DeSoto, thanks to tax abatements, have four groups planning power plants. Highlands, the most interior of the three, continues to pitch for call center operations to fill two Wal-Mart stores left vacant when the retailer opened a supercenter. Highlands hopes a $5.5-million expansion of Sebring Regional Airport and U.S. foreign trade zone status there will drive growth. All three counties are above the state average in the percentage of income coming from government transfer payments such as unemployment, Social Security and Medicare.
Businesses to Watch
Power plants: In Hardee County, Seminole Electric Cooperative broke ground last month on a $200-million, 500-megawatt power plant near the Polk County line, and Clearwater-based IPS Avon Park, in partnership with El Paso Energy Corp., plans to break ground in the summer on a $200-million, 680-megawatt peaking plant. In DeSoto County, Dynegy Inc., a Texas natural resources company, is said to have plans for a plant.
In Highlands, Sebring International Raceway is planning a new track and an 81-room trackside hotel in hopes of capitalizing on the overnight crowd.
The Internet: Low Tech
David Rae, founder of Internet game-enthusiast company the Attitude Network Ltd., which he sold last year to theglobe.com, has disquieting counsel for Internet startups in Collier County. "My number one advice to anyone founding an Internet company is to move," says Rae. "It's sad." A T1 line in New York might cost $800 a month and take several days to get installed. In Collier, Rae says, it may take weeks and cost $3,000 a month.
Complaints about telecom infrastructure also can be heard in Lee and Hardee counties, where even some economic development boosters publicly and privately express concern. The joke is ISD stands for "I still don't" know how long it will take to get a line. The telecom infrastructure is "generations behind where it needs to be," says Lew Attardo, president and CEO of the Hardee County Economic Development Council.
The target of complaints: Sprint, the dominant local service provider in much of Southwest Florida. Sprint expresses mystification at the unhappiness. (Indeed, a sampling of opinions in Bradenton and Sarasota reveals no dissatisfaction.) Mildred Graham, a Sprint spokeswoman, says fast growth in Lee, Collier and Hardee counties may from time to time affect customers' perception of responsive service. Be assured that Sprint wants locals to expand, she says. "We can only benefit from their continued success."