Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Southwest Florida: Snapshot of the region's economic strengths and challenges, people to watch


CHALLENGE: Sports Business

During the 1970s and 1980s, Tampa and St. Petersburg competed to be the most desirable Tampa Bay city to land a Major League Baseball team. The battle ended in 1986, when St. Petersburg broke ground on a stadium, then known as the Suncoast Dome, now Tropicana Field. With a baseball-ready stadium in place, St. Petersburg won the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 — but Tampa never lost hope. Now, with Rays’ attendance last in MLB for six consecutive seasons, Tampa and Hillsborough County see an opportunity to lure the Rays. A proposal to build a baseball stagradium on 14 acres in Tampa’s Ybor City neighborhood is gaining traction. The stadium would be adjacent to downtown and within walking distance of Ybor’s popular bar, restaurant and club scene. Ray’s owner Stuart Sternberg, who said he was “genuinely excited” and “cautiously optimistic” about the proposal, says the team might be willing to cover $150 million of the stadium’s projected $800-million cost.

CHALLENGE: Education

The announcement in 2009 that the Hillsborough County School District had won a $100-million stagrant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation generated optimism and excitement. But the district has struggled with the foundation’s requirement that the district match the grant with $100 million of its own. MaryEllen Elia, Hillsborough’s superintendent at the time, was fired in 2015 amid a growing budget crisis that saw the district spend $83.6 million in reserve funds between 2014 and 2015. Her successor, Jeff Eakins, froze wages and cut 600 jobs. Teachers protested at school board meetings this school year. Also, hundreds of students at eight schools walked out of their classrooms last November to support raises for their teachers. More troubles loom: The district needs $1 billion to build new schools and another $1 billion to maintain its existing schools.

CHALLENGE: Employment

Realtor.com ranked Tampa the top city that Americans moved to in 2016. WalletHub ranked it the 16th-best city in the U.S. to find a job. The Milken institute ranked Tampa’s economy 15th in its annual ranking of top-performing cities, up 18 spots from 2016. And the Tampa area ranked third in the state in job creation last year after it added 28,000 private-sector jobs. But there’s one ranking the city wants to change: Tampa and its surrounding communities have the highest number of available jobs in the state — more than 40,000 — with about 13,000 of those in high-skill, high-wage STEM occupations. To help fill the gap, Revature, a technology talent development company, has opened a facility at the University of South Florida in Tampa that will train students and help them find jobs. Also, the Tampa Hillsborough EDC, Visit Tampa Bay and Hillsborough County created Make It Tampa Bay, a marketing effort targeting high-skill, job-seeking professionals across the country. Its website (makeittampabay.com) includes links to job search sites and stories about local professionals touting Tampa. “Talent is the top priority for companies looking at our market for potential relocation or expansion,” says Tampa Hillsborough EDC CEO Craig J. Richard.


CHALLENGE: Public Safety

Pinellas County is being buffeted by conflicting trends. On one hand, car thefts have fallen from 4,659 in 2006 to 2,390 in 2016. However, the number of cars stolen by joyriding juveniles has risen significantly over the years — from 262 in 2006 to 359 in 2016, peaking at 499 in 2015. As the number of teens stealing cars has increased, so have the number of car crashes. During the last two years, eight teens, including passengers, have died in theft-related wrecks. The deaths have galvanized the community to seek solutions. Following a series of public forums, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist organized an expo to connect teens with activities designed to keep them occupied and out of trouble. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri directed his office to link social workers with the families of children prone to crime to address underlying causes.

CHALLENGE: Neighborhood Redevelopment

For 13 years, a modest shopping plaza at the corner of 22nd Street South and 18th Avenue South has been a barometer of progress in St. Petersburg’s economically challenged Midtown neighborhood. The opening of a Sweetbay there in 2005 was a huge win for the area, which had lacked a major supermarket. Sweetbay left in 2013 amid lagging sales, leaving the store empty until city officials convinced a Walmart Neighborhood Market to take the space later that year. But Walmart couldn’t make a go of it either and left in 2017. Today, the nearly 40,000-sq.-ft. space sits empty, as does one of Tangerine Plaza’s smaller retail spaces. There are signs of hope, though. The neighborhood’s poverty rate has dropped from 34.9% in 2014 to 17.6% in 2016, an alltime low. And there’s another effort afoot to fix Tangerine Plaza. Deveron Gibbons, a financial services executive who ran for mayor eight years ago, has assembled a development group and $15 million to revamp the plaza. The city has also had discussions with Altis Cardinal — a Miami developer that has $75 million worth of projects in the works along the city’s 34th Street Corridor — about reworking the plaza.


St. Petersburg, home to the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts since 1965, the Salvador Dali Museum since 1982 and the Chihuly Collection of glass art since 2010, now has two more major museums under construction downtown. The $55-million James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art, founded with art collected by Raymond James Chairman Emeritus Tom James and his wife, Mary, is scheduled to open this month. Just a few blocks away, businessman and collector Rudy Ciccarello’s $86-million Museum of the American Arts & Crafts Movement is under construction. The 137,000-sq.-ft. museum, which will display Ciccarello’s arts and crafts furniture, pottery, tile, metalwork, lighting, photography and other decorative arts, is expected to open next year. And, less than two miles west, a third museum, the 50,000-sq.-ft. Imagine Museum, opened in January with more than 500 studio glass works by more than 55 artists. Three years ago, the city started hosting the annual SHINE St. Petersburg Mural Festival, which has brought nearly 50 permanent murals so far to downtown buildings.


CHALLENGE: Downtown Redevelopment

Despite its scenic, waterfront location, downtown Clearwater has lacked the economic vibrancy of nearby St. Petersburg and Tampa. City officials have been hampered by the fact that a single entity — the Church of Scientology — has bought multiple parcels worth more than $260 million downtown, which is home to the church’s spiritual headquarters and hundreds of church employees. Late last year, the city moved ahead with Imagine Clearwater, a $55-million redevelopment plan to transform the city’s downtown waterfront and Coachman Park areas with pedestrian routes to public gardens, a concert venue and a gateway plaza, with many of the walking paths overlooking Clearwater Harbor. The city’s plan emerged after it struck a deal to buy a 1.4-acre lot next to city hall from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for $4.25 million. The church, which saw the lot as a key piece of its own plans for downtown, heavily lobbied the aquarium to sell the land to the church instead, ultimately bidding as much as $15 million for the property.


CHALLENGE: Public Safety

Like the rest of Florida — and the nation — Manatee County has struggled with significant numbers of residents overdosing on opioids. Last year, the local medical examiner was forced to hire more staff to cope with the increased workload. At one point, the morgue ran out of space for additional bodies. A joint effort last year by federal and local drug enforcement agents — nicknamed Operation Hot Batch — led to the arrests of 34 accused heroin dealers in Manatee County. Sheriff Rick Wells says the arrests resulted in fewer overdoses — 236 suspected opioid overdoses in the county in the second half of 2017 compared to 1,076 suspected overdoses in the same period a year earlier. Drug-related deaths decreased, too, from 89 during the last six months of 2016 to 22 in the last six months of 2017.


CHALLENGE: Higher Education

Sarasota’s move to become known as a college town — as opposed to being a community where five colleges happen to have campuses — is gaining traction. The effort got a new name last August — the Cross College Alliance — that replaced its previous name, the Consortium of Colleges on the Creative Coast. The alliance allows the 18,000 students enrolled at one of the five Sarasota-area colleges — New College of Florida, USF Sarasota- Manatee, Ringling College of Art & Design, State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota and FSU’s campus at the Ringling Museum, as well as Eckerd College in St. Petersburg — to take a class at one of the other institutions when that class isn’t available at their own school. Meanwhile, New College, which for the first time qualified for state performance funding (it received a $2.5-million bonus last year) plans to expand from 850 students to 1,200 by 2023. The expansion plan includes $45 million for hiring new staff and adding facilities, including a proposed multi-use student center.


CHALLENGE: Public Health

It wasn’t until 1984 that Lee Memorial Hospital won approval to operate a state-designated Level III neonatal intensive care unit, meaning that Lee County’s most at-risk premature babies no longer had to be transported to hospitals in Tampa Bay and Miami for care. Last April, the county reached another milestone with the opening of the sevenstory, 300,000-sq.-ft. Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida. The $200-million facility has 128 beds, a pediatric emergency department and a 64- bed neonatal intensive care unit. The hospital — which was made possible by a community-driven, $100-million capital campaign, topped off by a $20-million gift from businessman and Naples resident Tom Golisano — is “proof of what can be accomplished when we work together,” says Kathy Bridge-Liles, the hospital’s chief administrative officer.


CHALLENGE: Economic Recovery

On Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, Hurricane Irma, the first Category 4 storm to hit Florida since Charley in 2004, came ashore near Marco Island. The storm blew over trees, damaged buildings, brought down power lines and knocked out cell phone service to 73% of the county. Irma killed at least two people in Collier and caused an estimated $320 million in property damage. Collier’s economy has rebounded quickly, however. Residents got nearly $33 million in Irma-related FEMA aid by the end of the year, and single-family home sales increased 4% from 2016 to 2017. The median home sales price rose from $400,000 in 2016 to $418,000 last year. Many of Naples’ famed arts venues impacted by the storm — such as the G&L Theatre and the Gulfshore Playhouse — have reopened. Just three months after the storm, the county agreed to spend $12 million to buy 61 acres to build a sports complex that will include a 3,000-seat stadium.

People to Watch

Stephen V. Rodriguez: As president and CEO of Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates in Sarasota, Rodriguez heads the organization that manages Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park. He is charged with building on the world-class rowing venue’s recent success. Last year, the park hosted the prestigious World Rowing Championships, and this year’s calendar includes the 2018 World Rowing Masters Regatta. Rodriguez is working now to raise $10 million for upgrades.

Steve Moseley: Previously an executive vice president at Mid- Florida Credit Union, Mosely was promoted to president. The credit union, the fourth-biggest in the state, has 40 branches, 850 employees and $3 billion in assets.

Lucienne Pears: For two straight years, Consultant Connect, a Michigan-based economic development consultant, has named Pears one of the top 50 economic developers in North America. As director of the Charlotte County Economic Development Office, she played an instrumental role in each of Charlotte County’s economic development wins over the last few years, helping the county attract Western Michigan, Cheney Bros., Allegiant’s Sunseeker Resort, Metalcraft Marine, Stanley Aluminum Boat Builders and a planned 160-acre entertainment district in Murdock Village.

Lakshmi Shenoy: The CEO of Innovation Hub at Water Street came to Tampa earlier this year to drive the creation of innovative businesses and ideas at Strategic Property Partners’ $3-billion Water Street development in downtown Tampa. Shenoy, 34, had been vice president of strategy and business at a Chicago-based entrepreneurship hub called 1871 that UBI Global, an incubation industry consulting company, ranked as the top universityaffiliated incubator in the country. She’ll work with SPP’s Jeff Vinik, who spearheaded the hub’s creation and has plans to launch a $50-million venture capital fund to encourage innovation.

Jeffrey D. Senese: Senese became Saint Leo University’s first provost of academic and student aff airs earlier this year. He’ll oversee the school’s educational programs. He had been provost and vice president of academic affairs at Cardinal Stritch University, one of the nation’s largest Franciscan universities.

Lisa Wheeler-Bowman: This year, Wheeler-Bowman took over the top leadership role at the St. Petersburg City Council, which for the first time has a female majority. Wheeler-Bowman is expected to serve as a bridge between Mayor Rick Kriseman and the city council. Her ascent coincides with that of two other African-Americans who took leadership roles this year in Pinellas County: Ken Welch became chair of the Pinellas County Commission, and Rene Flowers chairs the Pinellas County School Board.

Regional Roundup

Citrus County
County Population: 147,995, +6.5% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 4.7%
Per Capita Income: $38,511

Joe Meek, a local builder and former Citrus County commissioner, was named chairman of the 900-member Citrus County Chamber of Commerce. Meek says he will focus on improving service to companies looking to relocate to Citrus County. Chamber staff have been instructed to get a firm’s questions answered immediately. Meek says he will also try to help existing firms grow. Meanwhile, David Reed was named the chamber’s chair-elect.

Charlotte County
County Population: 180,830, +9.7% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 18.5%
Per Capita Income: $41,239

Passenger traffic at the Punta Gorda Airport increased by 14.4% from 2016 to 2017. The boost has been fueled by Allegiant Air, which continues to add routes. Currently, the airline has non-stop service to 40 cities. The county has enacted a new sign code, limiting the size, frequency of use and timeframe of temporary signage, including banners, flags and pennants.

Collier County
County Population: 380,472, +12.1% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 22.9%
Per Capita Income: $85,421

The Gulfshore Playhouse is raising money to build a $45-million theater and education center in Naples Square. The Tamiami Angel Fund III of Naples invested $400,000 in Vital Vio, a New York-based health technology firm that makes germ-killing LED lighting systems.

DeSoto County
County Population: 36,456, +5.1% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 6.2%
Per Capita Income: $24,921

In March, the iconic Arcadia All Florida Championship Rodeo was held for the first time in the new Mosaic Arena, a stadium for which Mosaic contributed $3 million. The arena also includes space for the William G. “Kayo” Welles Florida Cowboy Museum.

Glades County
County Population: 14,128, +7.9% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 3.6%
Per Capita Income: $22,246

Love’s Travel Stops has opened a truck stop near the junction of U.S. 27 and SR 78 near Moore Haven. The facility, with 77 parking spaces for trucks with trailers, is the company’s 14th travel stop in Florida.

Hardee County
County Population: 28,198, +3.1% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: —2.3%
Per Capita Income: $26,472

Hardee County has a new hospital, the $31.5-million Florida Hospital Wauchula. The 25-bed, 50,000-sq.-ft. facility opened in December. The hospital features an emergency department with two trauma rooms and two pediatric rooms as well as onsite labs and radiology and mammography units.

Hendry County
County Population:40,612, +7.6% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: —5.3%
Per Capita Income: $29,535

A former sugar cane refinery in Hendry County will become part of an aluminum recycling and manufacturing facility operated by Atio USA. When it opens later this year, the facility will create 39 jobs, paying an average of more than $42,000 a year. FP&L’s proposed Hendry County solar plant near LaBelle, is expected to generate enough power for 15,000 homes.

Hernando County
County Population: 188,108, ï?©+8.1% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 17.2%
Per Capita Income: $36,335

Len Sossamon, Hernando County’s administrator and economic development director, credits the county’s Speculative Building Incentives Program with two new industrial buildings at the Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport and Technology Center. Also in 2017, the county dedicated a new wastewater treatment plant at the airport.

Highlands County
County Population: 105,125, +7.5% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 9.3%
Per Capita Income: $34,734

Twenty-nine Highlands County small-business owners received a combined $2.4 million in emergency bridge loans from the Florida Small Business Development Center at USF to repair damage caused by Hurricane Irma. The USF center also made $1.2 million in bridge loans to 11 business owners in nearby DeSoto and Hardee counties. A new retail center is planned for 7.7 acres along U.S. 27 in Sebring.

Hillsborough County
County Population: 1.42 million, +9.6% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 20.5%
Per Capita Income: $47,086

Havana Square, a 274-unit apartment complex in North Hyde Park, sold for $58.1 million to Nashville-based Nicol Investment. Three of Clearwater-based BayCare Health Systems hospitals in Hillsborough County — St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, St. Joseph’s Hospital-North in Lutz and St. Joseph’s Hospital South in Riverview — will undergo a combined $308 million in renovations over the next three years. Ybor City’s La Segunda Bakery, founded more than 100 years ago, will open a second retail location in south Tampa. Royal Caribbean will enlist a bigger ship to provide cruise service from Port Tampa Bay to Cuba. The 2,300-guest Majesty of the Seas will replace the 1,602-guest Empress of the Seas this summer. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which cut some bus routes last year to save money, is considering another revamp, including adding more stops at Tampa International Airport and Tampa General Hospital.

Lee County
County Population:738,964, +11.8% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 23.5%
Per Capita Income: $48,592

The 343,000-sq.-ft. Bell Tower Shops, an open-air shopping complex in Fort Myers, is undergoing renovations. Three Lee County cities made the top 15 in a WalletHub ranking of the nation’s cities with the fastest-growing economies. Lehigh Acres ranked third, Fort Myers fourth and Cape Coral 15th.

Manatee County
County Population: 384,140, +12.2% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 21.6%
Per Capita Income: $46,929

The death last summer of Snooty, who at 69 was the world’s oldest captive manatee, has not prevented its former home, the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, from moving ahead with plans for a $12-million, 12,600-sq.-ft. expansion. The project includes 15,300 square feet of outdoor program space.

Pasco County
County Population: 524,664, +10.3% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 23.5%
Per Capita Income: $39,481

Residents living near the 7 Diamonds Mine in northern Pasco County have challenged a county decision to allow lime rock mining three miles south of the Hernando County line. The residents say mining activity could harm nearby environmentally sensitive land and wildlife areas. Cypress Creek Town Center is expanding. Plans are underway to construct a $9.6-million, 109,500-sq.-ft. At Home decor store south of SR 56 near Wesley Chapel.

Pinellas County
County Population: 965,245, +3.8% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages/Salaries: 17.6%
Per Capita Income: $52,512

The 382-room Sirata Beach Resort in St. Pete Beach is undergoing a $15-million restoration. Seventeen major construction projects are underway in downtown St. Petersburg — from highrise apartment buildings to an $85-million police station — worth a combined $500 million. For the first time in history, the St. Pete- Clearwater International Airport surpassed 2 million passengers in a single year. The 2017 total is up 12% from 2016. Fucillo Automotive Group will open a Nissan dealership in Largo after purchasing 4½ acres on U.S. 19 for $2.5 million. AER, a 17-story, 358-unit apartment building in downtown St. Petersburg, sold for $127 million and has been renamed Camden Pier District.

Polk County
County Population: 672,133, +7.9% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 14.2%
Per Capita Income: $36,850

A former International Paper industrial building in Lake Wales has sold for $3.5 million to Fence Outlet, which plans to hire 80 people. Polk commissioners unanimously agreed to offer an unidentified company $300,000 in incentives to open a manufacturing facility in the county. The relocation would bring 250 jobs, commissioners say.

Sarasota County
County Population: 419,158, +7.4% vs. 2013
5-Year Change in Wages / Salaries: 24.3%
Per Capita Income: $61,463

Allegiant Air, the low-cost airline that has boosted traffic at many other airports in Southwest Florida, has arrived at the Sarasota- Bradenton International Airport. Flights to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are to start this month. Plans are underway for a proposed 500-home development on 288 acres in Palmer Ranch.


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