Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Working together to create jobs

Southwest Florida counties seek strength in Economic Development Partnership

Published: Tuesday, November 17, 2009 at 1:00 a.m.

One lesson from the long, deep recession is that communities, regions, states and nations are connected by the economy.

We are all in this together, to a great extent, so collaboration and cooperation can reap far greater rewards than division and dissension.

Competition among cities, counties, regions and nations was long the norm in economic development.

But a new initiative is bringing together job-creation efforts in an area including Sarasota, Charlotte, Lee, Collier and Glades counties. The goal of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Partnership is to market the region and explore ways to encourage businesses to expand in, or move to, the five-county area.

The new organization is based on the model that led to the creation of the Tampa Bay Partnership -- of which Sarasota County is also a member, along with Manatee, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Hernando counties.

Sarasota-Manatee ties are vital

It is encouraging that Sarasota County will remain in a partnership that includes Manatee. The geographic, economic, cultural and political links between the two counties are strong -- and offer some of the best opportunities for cooperation in commerce and government. The counties share a commercial airport, a road-planning organization, the two-county State College of Florida and the University of South Florida's Sarasota-Manatee campus.

The study that preceded the formation of the Southwest Florida partnership specifically noted that Sarasota County has strong connections to both the north and the south. The study also recommended that USF's Sarasota-Manatee campus become the future site of an "incubator" project that would help start-up businesses succeed.

Kathy Baylis, director of the Sarasota County Economic Development Corp., told us yesterday that her organization has had "pretty serious conversations" with the Sarasota-Manatee campus about such a project.

The need to generate jobs on a broader platform than tourism and real-estate development has become clear since the decline of the housing industry. As a result, each Southwest Florida county's economic development group has committed funds and resources to the new partnership.

With unemployment rates in Southwest Florida running in the 12 percent range -- higher than state and national averages -- building a more resilient work force is a priority for economic development efforts.

Despite its involvement in the Tampa Bay Partnership and reputation for being more aggressive than Sarasota in economic development, Manatee County has not been spared from 12 percent unemployment -- a reminder that partnerships are no panacea.

Still, there is value in collaborating, marketing and sharing information with other governments, and between governments and the private sector. Employing the theme "Southwest Florida, a brighter place to do business," the new partnership has launched a Web site and a marketing campaign aimed at promoting and branding the region.

The partnership concept was presented at a recent breakfast meeting in North Port that was hosted by the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County. It was noted that Southwest Florida often appears to lag other regions in job-recruitment efforts. The partnership will seek to change that perception and the reality.

As both Sarasota County and the city of North Port consider seeking authority from voters to use tax abatements as incentives for business relocations or expansion, it is helpful to know that the economic development officials in the region are trying to speak with one voice. It was pointed out at the breakfast meeting that, even though the counties will sometimes compete with each other for a particular prospect, the benefits of economic development are widespread.

The partnership organizers have made it clear they would welcome other counties and cities to join them. They have also opened the door to working with the Tampa Bay Partnership. These are good signs.

Common challenges

The long-term direction of the Southwest Florida group has not been determined, and the partners in this new effort are at different places on the spectrum of economic development. The Sarasota County EDC is an established organization that recently completed an aggressive goal-setting effort, but now faces the daunting task of implementation. Charlotte County's program has made significant strides in the past two years, but is still in its infancy.

Despite these differences, however, most counties in Florida have the common challenges of recovering from recession and building better economies.

This story appeared in print on page A6
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