MANATEE -- A new business organization says the area is not fully living up to its international trade potential, especially when it comes to Latin America.
The newly-formed International Business Alliance hopes to leverage infrastructure improvements at Port Manatee and the recently signed U.S.-Columbia free trade agreement to build business opportunities in Southwest Florida.
The group is devoted to expanding commerce between Latin America and 14 cities lining Florida's Gulf Coast from Tampa to Bradenton and Port Charlotte. Founder Jorge Chacón, a semi-retired Sarasota executive, believes major improvements now underway at Panama Canal will become the catalyst.
"We are well known for vacationing and the arts but nothing that has to do with international trade," said Chacón, a Columbia native. "People have money and want to trade in Florida. It's time we showed who we are."
Chacón is among a handful of entrepreneurs active in the global market who have formed the alliance. They will kick off their efforts with a luncheon Friday at Cafe Amici in Sarasota.
The event will feature guest speakers including the founder of the Colombian America Chamber of Commerce and representatives from the U.S. Department of Commerce export center in Tampa.
The initial focus will be on Bogota, Columbia, where Chacón hopes to form a sister city alliance -- tapping into the looser trade agreements now in place there. The organization also has planned a trade mission to three of Columbia's largest
metro areas in March to establish relationships.
The ultimate goal is to focus on a different Latin country each year, like Chile or Argentina, to sprout economic development opportunities.
"The idea is to be part of the match-making roundtable," he said. "There's a lot of value there."
And Chacón says Southwest Florida has a secret weapon by its side -- Port Manatee.
Port Manatee is one of 15 deep water ports in Florida. The dredging of Berth 12, which was completed last year, is part of a $200 million, decade-long expansion to allow for larger ships and cargos.
That project now has positioned Manatee to capture traffic it previously couldn't accommodate with limited cranes and cargo yards -- enhancing local opportunities when the Panama Canal dredging concludes in 2014.
Unlike the ports in Tampa and Miami, which both occupy areas downtown, Port Manatee also can offer a tamer commute for truck shipments, with a rail system just next door, said Steve Tyndal, the port's senior director of trade development and special projects.
"Our marketing efforts are laser focused on South and Central America, with a particular interest on what's going on in Panama," Tyndal said.
"Port Manatee and many other ports expect to benefit from that new cargo opportunity."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman