LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The Manatee-Sarasota area is ripe for economic growth with national and international business development, leaders agreed Wednesday.
But for it to truly come to fruition, a few things need to happen:
The area must be marketed better as a business destination and a college friendly region.
Improvements are needed in the public school systems and in retaining more college graduates in the area.
Local government needs to move more quickly in approving development projects.
That was the advice of a panel assembled by the Manatee Sarasota Building Industry Association for a session with about 200 real estate agents, builders and sales and marketing professionals at the Lakewood Ranch Country Club.
The state is doing a much better job marketing itself as a hotbed of tourism, and an attractive home for new and growing businesses, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton
Area Economic Development Corp.
"When people come and visit us, they find there's a little bit of everything here," Hillstrom said. "We just need to let the world know it's here."
She pointed to growth in the manufacturing sector, including Pennsylvania-based Air Products and Chemicals' 250,000-square-foot facility being built across the street from Port Manatee.
"That is going to be a tremendous catalyst, I think, for bringing other businesses to the area," Hillstrom said.
Sarasota County is wooing four international corporations from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Italy and China looking to operate here, said Mark Huey, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota.
"The common theme is the CEOs of all those companies own a home here and they love it," Huey said.
Huey, who previously oversaw urban redevelopment in Tampa before stepping into his position in June 2011, said he had a positive opinion of Sarasota-Manatee for its shopping and beaches but thought: "Aren't they the folks who don't want to grow?"
The region also needs to build a reputation as a college town, given the presence of the State College of Florida, University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, Ringling College of Art and Design, research facilities at Roskamp Institute and Mote Marine Aquarium and more, said Donal O'Shea, president of New College of Florida.
"What's really surprising is you've got this cross-section of American higher ed 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."
O'Shea and other panelists said more jobs with high-tech companies and start-ups would allow college grads to stay in the area and change the perception of the area as just a haven for retirees.
Public schools also have to improve, said Mark Chait, executive director of leasing for Benderson Development, who pointed out Florida's low national rankings in education.
"There's still a level of mediocrity we have to conquer," Chait said.
Chait drew the biggest applause from the real estate-focused crowd for his take on what would spur more economic growth in the area.
"Government needs to take absolute dogma and doctrine out of decision-making," he said.
The timeframe for getting developments approved has shortened since he joined Benderson in 2000, Chait said, but it still takes too long.
"To carry a cost for several years of owning land before you can develop it is just overwhelming," Chait said.
Still, Benderson's retail properties in and around The Mall at University Town Center, set to open in fall 2014 in University Park, project $1 billion in sales the first year, Chait said. That will fuel economic growth in the whole retail market and draw more major businesses to Manatee-Sarasota.
"As retailers come to the market, maybe University Town Center isn't the location for them," Chait noted, "so they'll look into the city, they'll look into West Bradenton, they'll look into downtown."
Jason Bartolone, East Manatee Editor, can be reached at 941-745-7011. Follow him on Twitter @JasonBartolone.