EAST COUNTY — Sharon Hillstrom moved here in1990 because her husband changed jobs.
“It took me five years to say, ‘I guess we’re staying here,’” said Hillstrom, now charged with marketing the area as president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Corp. “I slowly began realizing what we have here. And others are, too.”
Mark Huey, tasked with the same job for Manatee County’s neighbor as president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, likens his time here to a blind date that went well.
“At first I thought, ‘Aren’t those the folks who don’t want to grow?’” Huey said of his initial impression, when he left Tampa in June 2011. “Now, there’s a lot of excitement about what a special community this is.”
Hillstrom and Huey were part an economic panel at a Manatee-Sarasota BIA Sales and Marketing Council event — dubbed “Market Makers” — Oct. 30 at the Lakewood Ranch Country Club. Panelists described the region as ripe for economic growth and national and international business development.
It’s a new concept for many, and, as Taubman Centers and Benderson Development work to unveil the $315 million Mall at University Town Center in 2014, and with Nathan Benderson Park hosting the World Rowing Championships in 2017, it’s one that’s gaining more traction.
Corporations want to come here, Hillstrom said, pointing to growth in the manufacturing sector, with Pennsylvania-based Air Products and Chemicals’ 250,000-square-foot facility being built across the street from Port Manatee.
Huey said Sarasota County is in talks with four international corporations seeking to operate here. He even points to a new
1 million-square-foot Amazon distribution center in Ruskin as a job-creator for area workers.
But Sarasota-Manatee likely won’t be an economic landmark if some changes don’t occur, leaders say.
The economic leaders, joined by Mark Chait, director of leasing for Benderson Development, and Donald O’Shea, the president of New College of Florida, say better education and marketing and less government bureaucracy will help the grand plan come to fruition.
“We have a pretty special destiny here,” Huey said. “If we work hard, we can make it the community of choice, where Sarasota is one of those places that can compete globally.”
Getting there will first require persuading people already here to stay.
O’Shea says the area needs to market itself as a college town, given the presence of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Ringling College of Art and Design, research facilities at Roskamp Institute and Mote Marine Aquarium and post-graduate studies at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“What’s really surprising is you’ve got this cross-section of American higher education here, and no one thinks of this area as a college community,” O’Shea said. “You hear about the great college communities in the nation, you hear Ann Arbor, Austin, Berkeley, but Sarasota-Bradenton? It’s on no one’s radar screen.”
Even if young people are educated here, they must know they can quickly find work locally.
Hillstrom said the Bradenton Area EDC is working with colleges on internship programs with local companies.
Chait says government can make its approval process more business-friendly.
“It still takes too long (to get projects approved),” Chait said. “The carrying costs of holding land are overwhelming. And then there’s the Sarasota 2050 plan, telling a developer they must have a development a certain way in a certain place. You can’t do that. The economic process determines where places go.”
The panel also worried about supplying affordable housing for workers, especially for those taking the 2,000-plus jobs to be created from the Mall at UTC.
Lakewood Ranch has tried to address that with two planned apartment projects — The Venue at Lakewood Ranch, across from Main Street, and Creekside Apartments, the second phase to Lost Creek.
It’s just another part of the story Sarasota-Manatee has to share.
“We have a bit of everything,” Hillstrom said. “It’s here. And we have to let people know it’s here.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].