Big and bold were the themes of Thursday’s Sarasota Tiger Bay Club panel discussion. With 370 people attending at Michael’s on East Restaurant, including cadets from the Sarasota Military Academy, State Senator Nancy Detert moderated a conversation on Florida's economic future.
The four-person panel, which included Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam; President of Visit Sarasota County, Virginia Haley; President of Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, Mark Huey and President of Medallion Homes Gulf Coast, Carlos Beruff, discussed topics spanning from the expansion of the Panama Canal to water management policy.
Topping the agenda, however, was a debate on how to stem Sarasota's ‘brain drain’ of young professionals by making the area a more attractive venue for young start-ups and entrepreneurs.
“We've always been an exporter of talent,” Huey said. “We have tremendous educational resources here, and there are some cool companies in the area. Our challenge is to keep them here and help them grow.”
Putnam echoed Huey’s remarks, emphasizing the importance of enticing Florida university graduates to pursue and build businesses in the state.
“We want to be more than a reward for a life well lived,” Putnam said. “We need to attract more young people to live and work here.”
Beruff added that smart, efficient urban planning was an important part of attracting a young, professional demographic to the area.
“If we continue to think the same way we have for the past 20-30 years, then they won’t want to live here,” Beruff said, referring to the need for more walkable urban areas.
Panelists also discussed the importance of agriculture to Florida's economy, and the potential economic repercussions of the expansion of the Panama Canal, which will make Florida a first-stop for shipping routes out of Asia and could open up new markets for Florida agricultural products.
Putnam reported that Florida’s agricultural economy is a $100 billion annual industry, with a multi-million-dollar footprint in Sarasota County.
“Agriculture continues to be a very viable source of economic growth for Sarasota County," Putnam said, explaining to the crowd of area business leaders and political figures that agriculture is less affected by economic fluctuations than tourism.
“Agriculture is not as glamorous or sexy as tourism,” Putnam added. “But it is a stable contributor to the ad-valorem tax base.”
Putnam also discussed the importance of the Panama Canal expansion, which will grow the market for Florida’s agricultural exports already shipped to 120 countries.
“The widening and deepening of the Panama Canal will fundamentally change the way the logistics industry works on the planet,” Putnam said.
Huey piggybacked on Putnam’s remarks, adding that the potential agricultural boom from the Panama Canal expansion could provide a means to diversify the area’s economy.
The panel also discussed the importance of statewide water management policies, the record-breaking tourism season in Sarasota County and innovative ways to attract tourists to the area.
Haley reported that Sarasota County saw record levels of tourist spending this year. Panelists debated several innovative ideas to draw more tourists to the area, reaching a consensus on the merits of promoting the area as a destination for medical tourism, increasing eco-tourism opportunities and providing incentives to filmmakers considering projects in Sarasota.
Founded in 1982, the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club is a non-partisan political organization that, according to its website, is “designed to foster understanding of public issues.”
The next Sarasota Tiger Bay Club meeting, scheduled for Oct. 3, will include a discussion on the Sarasota 2050 Comprehensive Plan.
Residents can call 925-2970 for more information.
Contact Nolan Peterson at [email protected]