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Southwest Region

Sarasota: Still Going Strong

The heart of Sarasota is downtown, a large, thriving area that walks a line between big-city offerings and a small-town ambience that city leaders have tried desperately to maintain. This year will see a pinnacle of activity: The newly renovated and expanded Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is open; the $275-million Ritz-Carlton hotel and condominiums nearby will overlook Sarasota Bay; another 18-story luxury condo next door will be built after the Holiday Inn is torn down; an 18-story condo across the street will open, along with the 18-story Renaissance to the north. The Sarasota Quay is planning to renovate its 220,000 square feet of retail and office space and add another 230,000 square feet of retail, waterfront penthouse offices and 136 residences. In addition, several other high-rise and mid-rise condominium projects are under way.

All that construction is on top of about three years of similar activity -- amounting to an unprecedented building boom in the city's core. And there is quality in the quantity: All 50 luxury condominiums attached to the 266-room, five-star Ritz-Carlton were spoken for before dirt was turned.

Amid all this chest-thumping activity, however, is a growing problem: The downtown area suffers serious traffic congestion that will only get worse as more of the developments open up for residents and services.

Miami-based Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. has updated the city's master plan, and the City Council will be deciding the specific changes recommended by Andres Duany, the New Urbanist architect who has developed the revitalization plans for Naples, West Palm Beach and more than 200 other communities throughout the nation. City leaders expect his plan to help them keep Sarasota a "small-big" downtown.

People to Watch
Tramm Hudson, a banker with Provident Bank and chairman of the Sarasota County Republican Party, is considered to be a strong contender for the congressional seat being vacated by U. S. Rep. Dan Miller. Hudson, a former chairman of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and a leader of the Two Will Do! term-limit proposal that voters approved overwhelmingly, would bring a strong business orientation.

Vern Buchanan wants to build a statewide auto dealership and seems to be on the way. Buchanan Automotive Group recently purchased Merritt Island Honda and renamed it Space Coast Honda, adding to its five other dealerships.

Businesses to Watch
Core Development is on a Ritz-Carlton building spree. In addition to the $275-million Ritz-Carlton hotel and condominiums, it is building an $80-million Ritz-Carlton Beach Club on Sarasota's Lido Beach and will be building a private golf course for members and hotel guests when the location is nailed down.

LexJet Corp., a Sarasota-based company founded in 1994, specializes in wide-format printing. More than 7,000 professional wide-format, continuous tone and ink-jet printing locations around the world carry or use the LexJet Direct product. It is the fastest-growing company in the Sarasota area and now has a distribution facility in Milwaukee.

Key Statistic
The 1.1% annual population growth is the smallest of all the coastal counties in Southwest Florida, yet growth still bedevils the community.
Bradenton: Learning Curve

Downtown Bradenton continues to wobble between taking off and slumping hopelessly. A year ago, the "sandpile" area along the Manatee River downtown looked to be, after decades, ready to boom. But the major tenant of the planned development, Regal Cinemas, backed out in August, and the plans collapsed again. A new set of proposals for high-rise condos, office buildings, a hotel and restaurants is on the table. But residents know to wait and see.

On the brighter side, Tropicana Products' $90-million capital investment in a blighted area of the city should ignite a renewal. Meanwhile, growth is leaping out east of the city. The sprawling Lakewood Ranch development, about 6,000 acres now and expanding, is well-planned. More than 2,000 homes are in several subdivisions in the development. Panther Ridge is among many other multiphase developments, this one having more large lots.

All this development has stretched the urban area and is changing the character of the community. The County Commission and the school board are having joint vision meetings to try to organize the growth to maintain the area's quality of life while keeping the economic expansion associated with it humming.

Lakewood Ranch's location on the border with Sarasota County has sparked some long-needed cooperation between the two counties.

People to Watch
Brock Leach, the 41-year-old president and chief executive officer of Tropicana Products, was brought in by parent company PepsiCo and is expected to increase profits and build market share. He's already done that for Frito-Lay, another unit of PepsiCo.

John McKay, president of the Florida Senate for the next two years, has been involved in developments and business partnerships in office buildings in Bradenton and Sarasota. McKay is the second-most-powerful politician in Florida, and as one Bradenton chamber official noted, that tends to mean good things get done locally.

Businesses to Watch
Tropicana Products' new $30-million corporate headquarters building, along with plans for a $60-million juice storage and refrigeration plant, makes it by far the biggest commercial presence in the city. The company is Southwest Florida's largest private employer, with 3,250 workers.

Acterna's Bradenton unit, formerly Cheetah Technologies, employs about 340. The company produces equipment and software that allows cable companies to correct problems, such as signal degradation, before customers become aware of them. Cheetah was bought last year for $152 million by Maryland-based Acterna, which expects continued expansion.

Key Statistic
The region's population grew by nearly 20% in the 1990s, most of it outside Bradenton's city limits.
Naples: Selective

As in every coastal community in Florida, the biggest challenge for Naples is controlling and directing the growth that is as inevitable as the next wave crashing on the beach. Naples enjoys a national and international reputation of catering to the wealthy, with such landmarks as the Ritz-Carlton, LaPlaya Beach Resort, Registry Resort and Saks Fifth Avenue.

But this 20,000-population community also needs to broaden its economic base -- the primary mission of the Economic Development Council, says Susan Pareigis, the council's president. It is seeking out "knowledge-based" firms, including those in aviation, information technology and health technology. It's also targeting corporate headquarters and light-manufacturing and distribution jobs. "We want environmentally sound industries located in our market," Pareigis says.

Like much of the state and country, however, the Naples area faces some serious challenges in generating a skilled workforce for the jobs of the future, particularly the jobs that go with the companies that the community wants.

People to Watch
Garrett Richter, president and CEO of First National Bank of Naples, started as a janitor at Mellon in 1969, detoured to Vietnam, then left Mellon to start a bank in 1989 with partner Gary Tice. It is now a growing power in Florida. Starting with 16 employees when it opened, the bank now has about 380 working in Naples.

Arthur Allen, CEO of Allen Systems Group, started the company in 1986 and made it into one of the world's largest privately held computer software companies. Much of its growth has been through acquisitions, and this past year it continued that trend by acquiring a major competitor, Viasoft, for $152 million.

Businesses to Watch
Arthrex, a leader in research, product development and training for orthopedic surgeons and their patients, has offices in six countries and distributes its medical products in more than 49. Its growth has come from innovations in arthroscopic surgery. The company is privately held and does not release sales or employment numbers but is considered one of the fastest-growing companies in the Naples area, with a large plant expansion last year.

The Ritz-Carlton in Naples, one of the highest-rated hotels in the country, continues to refine its product for its refined clientele. After building a $25-million spa, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. is putting the finishing touches on a 295-room golf resort at the Greg Norman designed golf course Tibur?n. Opening this year, it will be an extension of the existing Ritz-Carlton.

Key Statistic
Naples was the fifth-fastest-growing metro market in the U.S. in the 1990s and was the only metropolitan area in Florida listed in the top 10, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Fort Myers: Less Reliant on Retirees

Fort Myers, home of shuffleboard and gray heads moseying along the beach? Hardly. The one-time retirement haven still has its share of elderly, but it is swiftly trending away from a heavy reliance on retirees. The 18- to 24-year-old age group grew nearly one-third faster than the state average from 1990-1999, and 130% faster than the U.S. average.

The change reflects the economic diversity the city has undergone and continues to cultivate. Higher-wage manufacturing is the goal. "We want to develop more Silicon Valley-type of companies," says Marietta Mudgett, executive director of the Greater Fort Myers Chamber of Commerce. Civic and business leaders believe it will help shield the city from economic downturns. They see the old one-tune economy of retirees/tourists as vulnerable to swings in the economy.

Companies such as Tech Services, a Microsoft training company downtown, are aggressively sought after. And there has been success. A collection of high-tech companies is growing and currently employs about 6,000.

People to Watch
Manny Fernandez, chairman of Gartner, which is the pre-eminent authority for research and forecasting in the information-technology group, was head of Dataquest, a Gartner unit, before becoming chairman of the Connecticut-based company. Fernandez, who spends most of his time in Fort Myers working with companies Gartner has invested in, plans to expand in the Fort Myers area, adding to the 450 already employed locally.

William Hammond, longtime environmentalist and professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, and Dennis Gilkey, one of the area's largest developers, have created and are co-chairmen of the Lee County Smart Growth Task Force. The group has 30 of the top business, government and community leaders, and expectations are high that it will help guide the county's continuing growth.

Businesses to Watch
Fox Electronics, a family-owned company based in Fort Myers for 20 years, manufactures quartz crystals and oscillators that help digital devices from watches to computers keep time. The company just opened a plant to build the recently patented "Just In Time Oscillator," a way to reduce crystal production time from 10 weeks to 10 days. About half of Dell computers now contain a Fox product.

Chico's continues to grow about as fast as a company can. The women's apparel chain has nearly doubled its number of stores in the past three years to 250 nationwide. It plans to open another 55 this year. Its target customer is 35 to 55 years old and affluent. Business casual and upscale casual are the core. The company has more than 305 employees in its Fort Myers headquarters -- twice the number from two years ago -- and 2,750 nationwide.

Key Statistic
The $386-million expansion of Southwest Florida International Airport, which is designated as a Foreign Trade Zone, will double the size of the existing terminal, good for tourism and business.
County Outlook

In Sarasota County, green-minded growth-control continues to butt heads with the reality of ongoing development. The balance that the county struggled to find for nearly two decades is teetering as it implements the Urban Land Institute's proposals for developing the largely rural area east of Interstate 75 and the remaining open parcels in the urban western area.

The process may offer the county's last chance to create a plan because chunks of the area are being developed in five-acre ranchettes, which are allowed under current zoning. To avoid that planners' nightmare, commissioners have agreed to a ULI plan to create six development categories throughout the county: Greenways, village/open areas, rural heritage, agricultural, urban/suburban and economic development.

The key is the village concept, which involves relatively dense developments of houses, condominiums and the commercial space needed to support them and keep people from having to drive into Sarasota. With this, thousands of acres would be set aside as undeveloped areas. County leaders know that if they do not act now, with this momentum, many of those open areas will disappear.

Meanwhile, the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park on the Manatee County border is growing rapidly, with 600,000 square feet of office space built out of about 6 million planned.

Business to Watch
Speedcom Wireless Corp. is expanding into a 40,000-sq.-ft. headquarters at Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park to pull in its burgeoning number of employees -- 110 at last count -- now spread among 12 buildings. The wireless broadband equipment-maker expanded its Wall Street presence with an upgrade to the Nasdaq small-cap market -- ticker symbol SPWC.
Lee County continues to become younger and more diversified. The change can be seen economically in the growing international airport, infant university and new R&D park.

A major component and gauge of continued economic growth is the $386-million expansion of the Southwest Florida International Airport. In 2000, more than 5.2 million passengers and 31.6 million pounds of cargo moved through the airport, wiping away previous records and jumping 6.3% each over the previous year. "The growth of the airport is the biggest indicator of the strength of the economy," says SFIA's Susan Sanders. "There's been a lot of effort here to try to diversify the economy, and you are seeing that reflected in the airport's growth. Growth was tremendous during the summer, what we used to call the off-season." The airport now has 17 gates. The new facility, which should be completed in four years, will have 28 gates, expandable up to 65.

Meanwhile, Florida Gulf Coast University continues to draw new blood into the community. The university "is a magnet for drawing new students, residents and businesses," says Douglas St. Cerny, chairman of the Lee County Commission.

Between the airport and the university is a new, 137-acre research and development park that is intended to draw on its location close to both of the other institutions. "Research and development is a magnet for clean industry," St. Cerny says.

The biggest problem: The ever-growing economy, with one of the highest job-growth rates in the country, is running dry of reliable labor, with unemployment at about 2.8%.

Businesses to Watch
EurexShutters, one of the top two shutter companies in Florida, has grown steadily since 1987. With the state currently undergoing serious building-code changes, requiring shutters in many coastal communities, the company is poised to take advantage; it engineers and manufactures its shutters, allowing the company to adapt quickly to changing codes. The number of employees -- now about 20, with an independent sales force -- is expected to jump substantially throughout the year.

Synergy Range and Golf International provides new types of golf course supplies such as golf range pickers and ball dispensers. Synergy holds eight patents and reports positive response from courses around the country. The company began with a modest 1,500-sq.-ft. facility but now has 15,000 square feet and is searching for another 15,000. The company expects to have 30 employees by the end of the year, up from three just two years ago.
Like its neighbor to the north, Collier County has some infrastructure needs that must be met if it is to maintain economic momentum and grow with the kind of industry it wants to cultivate. And like Lee County, Collier expects to benefit greatly from the expansion of the Southwest Florida International Airport and Florida Gulf Coast University.

About four out of every 10 people passing through the airport head to Collier County, and the expanded facility will be a solid selling point. But as one economic leader puts it, the county needs to focus on moving goods and services to market and employees to jobs. Mike McNees, assistant county manager, acknowledges that the county has fallen short in keeping up with road needs in particular. "Growth is an overriding issue for us," he says. "We've made a very aggressive effort in the past year to get going on that." While the County Commission has agreed to policy changes for doing some road catch-up, it has not specified a funding source yet.

Growth and anti-growth forces have collided in the county's rural fringe, roughly between the Naples urban area and Immokalee. A settlement with the state has resulted in a citizens panel that will make recommendations to the county.

Business to Watch
HellermannTyton, a leading manufacturer of cable management products, continues to expand in all areas to meet the growing demand for its products. The North Naples company has built a 110,000-sq.-ft. facility, where injection molding, extruding and distribution will all be conducted. Since starting operations in 1990, the company has grown from about 10 employees to about 109.
Charlotte, Glades, Hendry
Though small by Florida county standards, Charlotte County continues to grow rapidly and is trying to get a handle on development before it outruns services.
Charlotte did not have an economic development official before June 1999. At that time, it appointed an advisory board to create an economic development plan, and in January it developed a strategic marketing plan. A new economic development office is in the works as the county has now identified areas ideal for business and commerce parks.

All of this points to the transformation from a small, rural county to an urbanizing one and from a retiree-oriented economy to a more diverse area that stands apart from Fort Myers to the south and Sarasota to the north. Charlotte is feeling the growing effects, as a drive through Port Charlotte makes clear. Betty Williams, Charlotte County economic development coordinator, says the county is urgently seeking to increase its business and commerce tax base so it doesn't have to rely so much on property taxes.

Charlotte isn't the only county in this group facing that challenge. Hendry, a land-locked bastion of citrus and sugar, has created a Tourism Development Council to promote the kind of growth it wants. It's started a tourism campaign promoting "front-porch charms and backyard curiosities." Leaders want to diversify the agricultural base. "Change is coming to Hendry County. We can govern that change or be governed by that change," says newly elected County Commissioner W. T. "Bill" Maddox Jr., also chairman of the new TDC.

To the north, Glades County remains a rural community, where some of the most common businesses are wild boar-hunting tours and bass fishing on Lake Okeechobee. The county's relaxed style doesn't seem to be on the cusp of change.

Business to Watch
Ambitrans, owned by Michael and Lorraine Grant in Charlotte County, provides non-emergency transportation for handicapped people and an ambulance service between medical facilities; plus it operates a medical transcription company.
De Soto, Hardee, Highlands
Highlands County is not too hot and not too cold. Its economy has grown at 3% for several years, and county officials expect that to continue. "We're very comfortable with that," says Allon Fish, executive vice president of the Sebring chamber. "It is not explosive and unmanageable; neither is it stagnant." Infrastructure actually keeps pace with growth, and roads are not overly clogged -- except perhaps during the 24 Hours of Sebring at the Sebring International Raceway, when visitors double the county's population.

The economic backbone of Highlands remains agriculture; the county is third in the state in citrus production and first in beef cattle. But its tourist component is growing with the advent of nature tourism and attractions such as the Archbold Biological Station. And, of course, retirees are a critical component of the economy.

Serving this burgeoning group, Highlands Regional Medical Center just finished an expansion, and Florida Hospital in Sebring is expanding as well.

Major roadwork should ease some of the traffic problems through the historic district of Arcadia, the De Soto County seat, and set the development pace in the outlying areas, particularly to the east.

Hardee remains true to its historic base of agriculture, with citrus and cattle as far as the eye can see, a common theme in all three counties.

Business to Watch
Florida Hospital is expanding its emergency department at Heartland Medical Center in Sebring and its Lake Placid facility. Healthcare continues to grow throughout the region as retirees and snowbirds migrate south and medical advances make the hospital a major component of the economy.
Regional statistics, including population, income and labor information, are included in the print edition only. To order a print copy of the April issue, call (727) 821-5800. To subscribe to Florida Trend online, click here.