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Birth of a City?
Tropicana Products adds another pillar to the foundation of a fast-growing new community.

Last March, global juice producer Tropicana Products Inc. announced it had outgrown offices in downtown Bradenton and was looking for a new headquarters site with 125,000 square feet of space for its 350 managers and administrative staff. The $2-billion giant, a unit of PepsiCo Inc., narrowed the search to two sites in Sarasota and two in Manatee county. The winner: Lakewood Ranch, a 5,500-acre master-planned community with residential acreage in Manatee and commercial parcels in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Lakewood Ranch is just one chunk of the 28,000-acre Schroeder-Manatee Ranch (SMR), a diversified agribusiness and real estate development entity owned by Milwaukee's Uihlein family of Schlitz beer fame. In 1989, Manatee altered its growth management plan, moving the boundary six miles east of Interstate 75; the change opened up much of SMR's prime land, and since then the company has moved methodically to develop.

Residential construction began five years ago and continues at a steady pace. With 1,600 housing contracts in place and more than three-fourths of homes occupied, Lakewood Ranch was the largest home seller in the two-county area last year, with prices ranging from $95,000 to $1 million.

According to American Metro Study, it's the fourth best-selling master-planned community statewide -- and it's not even 25% developed. At build-out, it will accommodate 7,000 homes. "The population will equal some of Manatee County's cities," says Nancy Engel, executive director of the county's Economic Development Council.

Commercial development has picked up steam as well. Attracted by Lakewood's proximity to I-75 and high-tech fiber optic connections, SecurityLink, Ameritech's home security systems provider, and FCCI, the state's largest workers' compensation underwriter, have offices at Lakewood Ranch or are in the process of building. And SMR recently hinted at final negotiations with a national group to build a 130-room, full-service hotel. By year's end, the community expects to have a Publix, banks and healthcare facilities.

Manatee County works with Lakewood Ranch to lure businesses, and an incentives package from the county cinched the deal for Tropicana. But it wasn't massive. "We did not give away the store," says Engel. The package included matching funds for state job training grants, $70,000 in annual savings on wholesale water costs and county assistance with road grant applications. The county also promised to provide Tropicana signage on roads coming into Manatee County and to collaborate on future reclaimed water projects. Officials expect the arrival of Tropicana to bolster commercial activity.

With 5,500 acres permitted for development, Lakewood has the feel of an emerging city.

But "It's ultimately not our choice," says John Clark, SMR president and CEO. "It's up to the residents." Lakewood has set up quasi-governmental bodies that can issue bonds to raise funds for infrastructure maintenance and improvements. "These bodies do what a city administration would normally take care of, such as monitoring compliance to building codes and clean up of lakes and roads," says Clark. Residents pay an annual assessment in addition to county, school and other local taxes.

Whether or not residents choose to incorporate, there's nothing to indicate the rate of residential and commercial activity will slow. SMR recently broke ground on its third commercial site, to be called Lakewood Ranch Commerce Park.

In the News

Clearwater -- Massachusetts-based RISCmanagement is moving its Tampa operations to Clearwater and may relocate some headquarters personnel. The software developer and reseller of information management systems employs about 50 and expects to add 100 employees by 2001.

Lakeland -- Following a series of acquisitions, automotive safety components manufacturer Breed Technologies (NYSE-BDT) has maxed out its credit sources and is seeking Chapter 11 protection. A restructuring program last year laid off 4,900.

Lee County -- Agribusiness giant Alico Inc. (Nasdaq-ALCO), which donated the land for Florida Gulf Coast University, is selling 402 acres to Thomas Garlick trust for $15 million and 190 acres to Southwest Florida Equities for $6.5 million. Both are slated for commercial development near the airport. Montreal-based Miromar closed a deal with Alico for 932 acres near the university, mostly for residential development.

Expansion plans at Southwest Florida International Airport are ready for takeoff now that the Lee County Port Authority has approved $356 million for a new terminal. The growing facility handles more passengers than Jacksonville International and last spring logged a record number of travelers.

Plant City -- Medical equipment manufacturer Sterile Recoveries (Nasdaq-STRC) opened a 49,000-sq.-ft. plant for its disposable accessory packs after closing its Orlando facility. The Clearwater-based company employs about 30 here.

Punta Gorda -- IMPAC University can begin enrolling students for its professional MBA program, which kicks off in January. The state's first "corporate" university, it is sponsored by IMPAC Corp., a global management consulting firm based here.

Sarasota -- Family-owned and operated Serengeti Eyewear has found additional capital to fund growth. The sunglasses maker and distributor recently secured a $12-million line of credit. Serengeti acquired Corning Inc.'s sunglasses division in 1997, which brought the company into the premium brands market but caused it to post a $3.4-million loss that year.

Recent acquisitions move Pinnacle Holdings (Nasdaq-BIGT) to the No. 2 slot among independent communications tower companies. Pinnacle, which leases out tower space for cellular services, wireless data transmission, and radio and TV broadcasting, spent $50 million for 552 additional towers throughout the U.S. The company, whose customers include Sprint, BellSouth and the FBI, also recently closed a deal with Motorola for more than 1,000 towers in the U.S. and Canada.

St. Petersburg -- The Pinellas County School Board approved a $110-million school construction and renovation project in south Pinellas. The project will involve seven sites in predominantly African-American neighborhoods and is part of a broader movement to end court-enforced busing.

Internet services companies U.S. Technologies Inc. of Tampa and Digital Chainsaw of Largo are merging and relocating to Downtown St. Pete's Enterprise Zone. About 100 employees will market Internet-related services, such as electronic commerce, and Web-based software applications.

Tampa -- TECO Energy (NYSE-TE) hopes a technology unit sell-off will recharge its lackluster earnings. On the selling block: TeCom, the utility's developer of software and hardware for residential and commercial energy management systems. The company is talking with London-based Invensys PLC, which runs a similar business. The company also plans to buy back up to $150 million of its common stock.

Shipping company Maritrans Inc. is looking for incentives to relocate its corporate headquarters to Tampa from Philadelphia. The company, which owns and operates barges and oil tankers, already employs about 175 at the Port of Tampa.

What's up with broker-dealer Raymond James Financial? Wall Street continues to brush off the company's stock, keeping it at around $20 a share, down from $35 in April 1998. Nationwide, the industry has seen a storm of big mergers and acquisitions. St. Petersburg's Raymond James (NYSE-RJF) has added to its global presence with joint ventures in Turkey and France and purchased Detroit-based brokerage house Roney & Co. Analyst Lauren Smith, of Putnam, Lovell, deGuardiola & Thornton, doesn't see RJF's stock price turning around soon. But, she says, Chase Manhattan's buying San Francisco brokerage firm Hambrecht & Quist could make things interesting. Raymond James is one of the few attractive properties out there for buyers who are still "hunting and pecking," she says: "Everyone is looking at who's next, and Raymond James is a top-notch, quality firm." Smith's comment doesn't surprise RJF spokesman Larry Silver; the firm's had "overtures" in the past, he says, but "we covet our independence."