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Opinion
East County Thursday, Jul. 25, 2019 3 weeks ago

Lakewood Ranch's Halfacre Construction enjoys success with an eye on the future

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Side of Ranch: Jay Heater
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

Jack Cox is waiting, and watching.

Mostly watching.

Cox is the president and CEO of Halfacre Construction, which is thriving in its commercial and industrial construction business as growth continues to fuel the number of projects coming to the Manatee and Sarasota counties area.

He still watches, though, because part of his job is seeing what is around the next corner, or the corner that is 10 miles down the road.

Based in Lakewood Ranch, it's easy to be bullish, because housing starts continue to rise and that means business follows, in a reflective manner, a couple of years down the road. Simply put, there are no worries on the horizon for quite some time.

But there is some faint writing on the land use wall. Take Lakewood Ranch out of the equation and the rest of Manatee County has slowed, in terms of housing starts. The national housing market is uncertain at best. Some enthusiasm must be tempered.

"The biggest challenge here is available land," Cox said from his office on Professional Parkway. "Sarasota is running out of space. Manatee is in a much better position."

Sarasota has an urban service boundary as part of its land use plan that limits commercial and industrial growth. Those limits tend to drive up the value of land still available for those uses.

That makes it too expensive for many industrial uses.

Also, as the Lakewood Ranch sprawl goes southward with Waterside in Sarasota County, Cox noted there is no commercial zone along Lorraine Road. 

"The challenge in Lakewood Ranch is that there are no commercial slots available," he said.

Fortunately for Cox, opportunities abound in Manatee County with projects such as Lakewood Ranch's Collaboration Opportunities for Research and Exploration (CORE).

"The CORE project is a fantastic location," said Cox, noting that Halfacre managed the construction of the Mercedes Medical distribution center in CORE.  "It's great having SMR (Schroeder Manatee Ranch) in our backyard."

Paying attention to longterm fluctuations in the economy has served Cox well in the past. When the economy hit a slump late in the decade of the 2000s, Halfacre changed some of its focus to parks and road projects, The City of Sarasota and Hardee and Charlotte counties became regular customers. Part of those projects were building upgrades in water and sewer facilities for those public entities.

Halfacre, which reported $42 million in gross revenue for 2018 and does business primarily from Tampa to Naples, continues to grow. It also has an office in Punta Gorda. 

"Our company has evolved," Cox said. "We've been in business 49 years. We originated in (the city of) Sarasota and we moved to Lakewood Ranch in 1999." 

While Cox said it is likely Halfacre always will have an office in Lakewood Ranch, he isn't sure if the headquarters will move elsewhere as available land slows here and picks up elsewhere.

Until that time, Halfacre remains a major player in our area.

It just broke ground on the build-out of the 8,555-square-foot anchor unit in San Marco Plaza for the ABGT Investment Group, which will operate a Goldfish Swim School franchise there. Cox said the 25-by-70-foot pool is currently being installed. ABGT's George Loukma said he hopes the facility is open by November.

Halfacre just finished a 13,365-square-foot welcome center addition and renovation for the First Baptist Church of Palmetto, which opened in 1892 at its site at 1020 Fourth St., W., in Palmetto.

Cox said it is a much different job than taking a business from the ground up.

"The church was the focal point of the community," he said. "You have architectural constraints and you get into unforeseen conditions. They had to remain open during the process so it had to be done in phases. They were having weddings and funerals there and their kids were being baptized."

Even so, Cox said his managers learn something from unique jobs they can take to future projects.

"With the church, we were dealing with committees, and we were building their home," Cox said. "We spend a lot of time with our customers and we take note of how they run their businesses."

For those who want to see another example of Halfacre's work, they can drive past the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport and look at the control tower.

In terms of his favorite projects, Cox said he liked building Gold Coast Eagle Distributing in Lakewood Ranch.

"Construction guys like to drink beer," he said.

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