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Around the State- Southwest/ Tampa Bay- May 2000

Across the Gulf
Pinellas County looks to help its manufacturing firms do business in Mexico

By Stacie Kress Booker

With Florida accounting for only 1% of the U.S.' $200 billion in annual trade with Mexico, state economic leaders have begun pushing to build a stronger trade connection across the Gulf. Gov. Jeb Bush headed a trade mission to Mexico last summer, and Florida cities including Orlando and Jacksonville have either engaged trade representatives or cultivated relationships with Mexican trade officials.

Pinellas County has decided to raise the ante, becoming the first county in Florida to set up a trade office in Mexico. The so-called Pinellas County Mexico Initiative -- funded initially with $190,000 from the county commission and based in Mexico City -- is also Pinellas' first trade office outside the country.

Why Pinellas? "It's got the largest manufacturing base in the state. We make what Mexico buys," says Gary Springer, executive director of the trade office who has worked as a U.S. adviser to the Mexican government during the NAFTA negotiations and an Enterprise Florida trade expert based in Mexico.

Springer's initial focus will be on helping the county's 110 medical, biotech and health-services companies sell technology directly to Mexico. Springer, with 18 years' experience in international trade, has a base to build on: Bush's Team Florida mission last July resulted in $7 million in new and anticipated sales for Pinellas companies, and St. Petersburg hosted a Mexican group in October that brought in $13.5 million in new business.

But there are obstacles: Even though the Tampa Bay region has three ports, Mexican imports and exports typically flow through Florida ports to the south. That poses a logistical challenge for companies like Appliances International, a small St. Pete-based refurbisher and seller of used appliances that has targeted three potential sales sites in Mexico. The cost of trucking its goods to a south Florida port could prove a deal-breaker.

There is hope, however. Representatives from Port Manatee, Port of Tampa and Port of St. Petersburg traveled to Mexico in March to discuss establishing trade routes. The Tampa port also has opened a trade office in Mexico City.

Springer is gearing up for another mission to Mexico next month and is working on recruiting Pinellas' medical, biotech and health-care services companies to attend Expo Médica, Mexico's largest medical trade show. The county has secured $7,500 in trade assistance from Enterprise Florida and hopes to take at least 10 companies to showcase their wares. It's this kind of face-to-face contact, says Springer, that will create business opportunities and clinch deals. "Mexico is a very person-to-person business culture. People like to know you before they do business with you."

In the News

Bonita Springs -- Real estate firm Watermark Communities Inc. is expanding its statewide reach. It has opened start-up offices in Fort Myers and in downtown and north Naples and has more than tripled its staff from 81 to 350 agents in Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Manatee and Hillsborough counties as well as Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.

Bradenton -- Tropicana will distribute its juice products in Puerto Rico using parent company PepsiCo Inc.'s sales, marketing and distribution channels. This is their first joint distribution venture since Pepsi bought Tropicana in 1998. Separately, Tropicana is updating its rail-car fleet, adding 135 new refrigerated cars expected to be in service next year.

Fort Myers -- PrimeCo Personal Communications opened a 2,500-sq.-ft. store here, its largest retail outlet in southwest Florida. The Boca Raton-based PCS/wireless provider is owned by Bell Atlantic and Vodaphone/AirTouch. It has 45 company-owned stores statewide and serves more than a half-million customers here.

Lakeland -- RMC Ewell Inc. plans to open a $7.5-million paver plant here this month. The supplier of block, pipe and ready-mix concrete is adding concrete pavers to its product list. About 10 employees will be added initially with more planned as business picks up. With the new plant, RMC becomes the third paver-producer in the area, joining Pavermodule of Florida Inc. in Haines City and Matt Stone Inc. in Zephyrhills.

Largo -- The Securities and Exchange Commission has given DoctorSurf.com go-ahead to issue free stock to website members in California, Louisiana and Georgia, but the Largo-based company is still waiting for approval in Florida. Launched early this year, the site provides research, educational programming, practice management and e-commerce to member physicians. Members can receive up to 100 shares of common stock free, and there is no membership fee. This type of Internet-based free stock offering is new ground for the SEC, which is calling this an IPO even though the company will remain privately held.

Naples -- Chicago-based Harris Bank acquired Village Banc of Naples with branches here and in Fort Myers. The deal is worth about $13.4 million. Harris, owned by Canadian Bank of Montreal, has branches in Sarasota, West Palm Beach and Vero Beach. It plans to market to both snowbirds and locals.

Sarasota -- A proposed community bank for downtown Sarasota, The Bank of Commerce, has cleared another hurdle. The Florida Department of Banking & Finance granted it preliminary regulatory approval, clearing the way for construction to begin. One of several planned community banks for the area, it will have at least $8.5 million on hand when it opens -- higher than any previously organized local banking institution.

Tampa -- The Port of Tampa is adding a third cruise line. Premier Cruise Lines' Big Red Boat II, a 1,597-passenger ship, will be the largest vessel sailing from Tampa. It will begin cruises to Mexico, Belize, Roatan, Honduras and Key West this fall. The port will spend $6 million to $10 million to upgrade the facility Premier will share with Holland America.

A new corporate headquarters for staffing firm kforce.com is under construction in Ybor City, a popular area for nightlife that has struggled to draw daytime business. The $35-million project will combine the company's four Tampa locations and 800 employees under the same roof.

Online Information: One-Stop Permitting

Florida recently launched a one-stop website, (permitting.state.fl.us) for state and local permitting information. Charlotte County is among the first to use $25,000 in grant money to create its own website (www.charlottecountyfl.com) and link up to it.

Bebe Smith, Florida's one-stop permitting coordinator, says the goal statewide is "to lure more business from outside the state and make it easier for them to do business here."

The strategy will roll out in three phases: Phase 1, which came online Jan. 1, includes permitting information for the departments of Environmental Protection, Transportation and Community Affairs as well as the state's five water-management districts. Besides Charlotte, there are four other counties in southwest Florida onboard: Hardee, Pinellas, Collier and Manatee; Phase 2 will link up additional state agencies; and Phase 3 will allow for permit applications to be submitted online.

The timetable for phases 2 and 3 will depend on how much money the Legislature allocates to the program.