Sarasota HuB incubator considers Bradenton expansion

City, county leaders working to get expansion of Sarasota business helper

cschelle@bradenton.comJuly 7, 2013 

BRADENTON -- Sarasota's thriving HuB tech business incubator could be docking in Bradenton.

The privately held technology business incubator, home to more than 30 creative industry businesses in downtown Sarasota, is exploring the possibility of expanding to the Friendly City.

A team of Bradenton and Manatee County officials recently led Swier on a tour, meeting with representatives from the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Development Authority, Realize Bradenton, Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. and Mayor Wayne Poston.

HuB's founder, Rich Swier Jr., told the Herald that it's too early to tell if the HuB will find a space in Bradenton to expand.

"We are in the early stages of making a decision on whether expanding the HuB would make sense, but we were extremely impressed with Bradenton and its leadership," Swier said. "We would be extremely fortunate to be part of a forward-thinking and business-minded community."

Having a creative incubator downtown is a vital part of Realize Bradenton's 10-year cultural master plan, which encourages incubators to locate in vacant buildings or warehouses. Realize Bradenton has worked on bringing an incubator to the city for the last two years, says Realize Bradenton Executive Director Johnette Isham.

The timing is right, Isham says, and she is confident one will land within three years.

"The Bradenton-Sarasota region is really ripe for the expansion of this idea," she said.

Credit Ben Bakker for playing matchmaker between the HuB and Bradenton.

Bakker, vice president of HJB Properties, got to know Swier and the HuB while installing the sign at Swier's building on the corner of Fruitville Road and Goodrich Avenue in Sarasota.

After a recent tour of the HuB headquarters, Bakker talked with Swier about the potential to open a smaller satellite HuB in Bradenton. He then helped set up the recent tour of his family's commercial buildings, which includes the Bank of America building at 1201 Sixth Ave. W.

The HuB is for entrepreneurs who want space but aren't ready yet to buy their own office.

"A lot of them are one- and two-man entrepreneur start-up operations and a lot of them can't move past 'I don't quite have enough capital to move out of my living room,'" Bakker said.

The HuB has the ability to change that.

"A place like the HuB, all of a sudden you can afford to have somewhat of an office space, not only office space, but you have someone in the room next to you that can help with marketing and another person with software development and someone across the room that can help with YouTube videos," Bakker said.

What is the HuB?

The HuB is the oldest privately owned tech business incubator in Florida, known for its casual environment and sense of humor as much as its successful ventures.

The business incubator's 40,000-square-foot building is a co-work/co-creative space where start-ups lease space for low or no rent, sharing common areas in a Google-like environment.

The HuB moved into a new building last year in the former Century Bank building at 1680 Fruitville Road, after its infancy in a small space in the city's Rosemary District in 2009.

Swier's HuB includes its own media company focusing on arts and entertainment videos for Sarasota, creating viral content -- its satirical "Saratopia" Web series -- plus video production for businesses' websites.

The HuB occasionally acts as an activist in city politics to foster a young, thriving nightlife scene in Sarasota by conducting polls and developing content to help influence public opinion. The HuB has attempted to bridge the nightlife gap by hosting special events and parties to welcome the public inside its home, including a monthly creative class/entrepreneur networking event coming up on July 18 promoted as HUB 4:20.

"The HuB 4:20 brings other like-minded entrepreneurs and creatives to the HuB for no real purpose or any expectation of accomplishing anything. We meet each month to connect, share ideas and drink," the event description reads.

Outside of the HuB's own digital production business, it hosts about 30 companies that work in their own space, ranging from social media marketing, digital animation, Web design, video production and a start-up bank called Florida Shores Bank, which also has an office and drive-through window on the property.

A major backer, as well as a client of the HuB, is Sarasota entrepreneur Jesse Biter. He built some of his fortune from a Web service that offers discounts for car dealers called Dealers United. Biter, who co-founded Dealers United with Rep. Vern Buchanan's son Matt Buchanan, has expanded his interests publicly beyond technology and into redevelopment in Sarasota, including the purchase of the building that houses HuB, and also chaired Rick Santorum's Florida campaign during the Pennsylvania senator's run for president last year.

Finding a fit

If the HuB locates here, its presence doesn't mean an automatic boom for Bradenton. Partnerships between public and private organizations, including government and schools, are key, Isham said.

The University of South Florida has been searching for space in downtown Bradenton, according to Dave Gustafson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. A partner like USF could create a key partnership for creation in Bradenton's core if the HuB would be here too, Isham said.

The college already has a history of working with the city on planning for the Village of the Arts.

The HuB as well as government officials are doing their due diligence on the potential move by providing as much information as possible for the HuB, Mayor Wayne Poston said.

Poston said the meeting with the HuB and Swier went well.

"He liked our vibe," Poston said.

In an email to Poston and other officials following the tour, Swier wanted to know four key points:

1. Willingness of the top 10 corporations/governments/organizations to commit to buying tech/creative/innovative products and services locally.

2. A better understanding of your broadband infrastructure and willingness to put a broadband plan in place.

3. What location options are available for a HuB.

4. A list of vacant properties that would be available to develop downtown.

Swier added in the email that he would also want to invite the entrepreneurial, tech and creative crowds to an organized event downtown "and see what existing activity there is and how we could potentially build on it." Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of Bradenton Area Economic Development, toured the HuB's Sarasota digs and while officials are looking to create a list of properties, the space isn't what the business is all about.

"It's the environment that exists in the space that really is the key to success of this entrepreneurial ecosystem," she said. "It's a culture; it's the idea of collaboration between businesses and sharing ideas."

Finding fiber

When high-tech companies and business incubators want to open up, bandwidth quality and capacity are key factors, said Jeff Kratsch, president of Suncoast Technology Forum.

When Swier asked area officials about the broadband and fiber availability in Bradenton and about its plan, officials began doing their homework because they lack a comprehensive map that can be shown to prospective companies, outlining the public and private Internet lines in Bradenton.

Fiber would be preferable to broadband for higher speeds and affordability, Kratsch said, and the only private carrier fiber provider in the area is Verizon, but it is not available in downtown Bradenton. These are needs that have to be addressed for any tech company, he said.

"That's a very important question they have to look at," Kratsch said.

"What services are available? They need to know. Depending on bandwidth requirements of any tech company or any given company, they need to know what the bandwidth requirements are."

In many cases, fiber could be available on one side of the street but not the other because the infrastructure wasn't upgraded, Kratsch said, potentially making or breaking a deal.

The county is working to furnish a map of the available broadband and fiber in Bradenton, Chamber President Bob Bartz said.

Florida Power and Light provides fiber optic for Internet in select areas around Bradenton, as well as Manatee County Government and Manatee County Schools, Bartz said. It's unclear if a private business would be allowed to tap into the fiber lines of the school or county government, he said.

Downtown Bradenton is serviced by Bright House Networks with broadband, which is high speed, but not as fast as fiber.

"Right now we're just trying to see where it exists," Bartz said. "One way or another, there's going to be a way to get them broadband."

The area also lacks an official broadband plan to install broadband and fiber optic to underserved areas for business and residences, and a team will be working on that in September, he added.

Whatever the city lacks in its broadband network, it would have to figure out how to fill those gaps, Poston said.

From what Bartz understands of the HuB's needs, blazing-fast Internet might not be the ultimate need. Instead, they're looking at how close the space is to a thriving downtown scene.

"I think in this particular case, they would like more of an urban setting," Bartz said.

Once the Internet questions are addressed, the information would end up being helpful to not only attract the HuB, but other high-tech companies, too, Bakker said.

"I would assume that Bradenton would not only be able to market itself as the Friendly City, but being a very up-to-date modern fiber city could serve as quite a selling tool," Bakker said.

-- Herald reporter Janey Tate contributed to this report.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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