Business incubator, mentoring project both hold promise for Bradenton's future

November 3, 2013 

For years now, one of the greatest concerns of Manatee County residents involved in any way with economic development has been the loss of young talent to more attractive prospects elsewhere. The brain drain hinders the region's ability to diversify an economy primarily dependent on tourism and agriculture.

With Bradenton emerging as an up-and-coming hip place, though, opportunities to engage and recruit young entrepreneurs and technology wizards are in play. This week's news that the Friendly City is primed to become home to a business incubator is another indication of Bradenton's bright future.

That can be traced back to far-sighted community leaders who launched a citizen-driven visioning process called Downtown by Design, completed in February 2007 under the direction of Bradenton's Downtown Development Authority. The master plan provided the framework that led to the birth of Realize Bradenton and the construction of Riverwalk, the Manatee River park that now serves as a cultural touchstone for the city.

The park is not only attracting big crowds -- like for this weekend's Taste of Manatee restaurant fair -- other developments like the resurrection of downtown's historic hotel and new restaurants and brew pubs are following, as hoped. And now some bright minds are taking notice of these improvements.

Two young Sarasota investors are poised to launch a business incubator in Bradenton in partnership with the University of South Florida's Connect program and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. With a letter of intent in hand, the outlook appears promising.

Business consultant, venture capitalist and entrepreneur Sara Hand and partner Stan Schultes, a software developer, view Bradenton as a prime spot to house an incubator, citing not only the availability of commercial space but the location with Riverwalk, Village of the Arts and Old Main Street providing the vital cultural connections that a creative population craves.

On a lighter note, Schultes told Herald reporter Charles Schelle that "Software people like a couple of things: they like good beer and they like to ride bikes." With three new craft breweries opening downtown just in the next few months, that attraction will be there. And Manatee County's superior nature reserves provide superior cycling opportunities.

Hand and Schultes have established a solid track record in the region, helping to develop start-up companies and creating networking organizations for the technology community. The two organized a multi-day event in Manatee County to link up tech experts and investors in the hopes of developing Bradenton into a high technology hub. That May event attracted hundreds of business entrepreneurs.

Their business incubator could open this spring, given enough funding from USF and others. Such incubators provide space for start-up companies to operate and also collaborate with other entrepreneurs located there as well as receive some administrative services.

University partnerships would be valuable, too, connecting students with companies. We encourage USF, the Ringling College of Art and Design, New College of Florida and State College of Florida to join this budding effort at economic diversification.

The return on investment to a community is very appealing. According to a 2011 University of Central Florida study, UCF's four mature incubators paid out $10 for every dollar invested. Another nine returned $5.04 on the dollar.

Another promising development comes courtesy of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. The Venice-based organization is funding an initiative called Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast. The new project links inventors, entrepreneurs and community expertise to guide startups to success.

The foundation's focus is to nurture an "innovative economy" and provide the region with recession-resistant industries by providing free coaching to entrepreneurs with business ideas but few resources.

A Bradenton incubator would complement the foundation's BIG strategy.

The city could benefit from two incubators as a Sarasota outfit known as HuB indicated interest in the city months ago. But the private company expressed disinterest in Bradenton in light of the new proposal. That's regrettable considering the two would likely not compete because of different operating structures. We encourage HuB to reconsider.

These efforts a cultivating a creative class -- especially with bright young minds -- lend hope for the region's future economic health.

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