Manatee County's economic picture brightens

November 29, 2013 

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Customers get a head start on the holiday shopping season Thursday in the electronics department at Kmart in Ellenton. Seasonal hiring of retail store clerks helped lower Manatee County's unemployment rate.

GJEFFERIES@BRADENTON.COM Buy Photo

Manatee County received an early Christmas present over the past week with strong developments on the economic front. The unemployment rate dropped to 6.6 percent in October, fueled by seasonal worker hiring in the retail and restaurant trades.

But the promising figures showed improvement in two key county sectors, manufacturing and construction, and Suncoast Workforce foresees additional high-wage, high-skilled jobs being posted with the nonprofit corporation, which connects employers and career-seekers in Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The most compelling development, though, comes from Port Manatee. In the wake of the September signing of a memorandum of understanding with Pasha Automotive Services, a California-based car importer and exporter, Port Manatee attracted a host of automotive industry executives here this week for a two-day summit.

With Ford and Chrysler representatives among the 15 executives, Port Manatee enjoyed a high-powered captive audience for its bid to entice an industry that could play a potent role in the economy.

Pasha requires partner businesses in the automotive industry to be successful here, and the summit represents a key step toward achieving that goal. Along with the big two major automobile manufacturers, shipping experts and parts makers attended.

Competition for this business lurks nearby. The Port of Tampa hosted a similar summit right before Port Manatee's event. Both ports aim to bag a portion of the same vehicle market.

Pasha plans to import American vehicles assembled in Mexico for finishing work and inspections before being sent to car dealerships. Those cars could also be exported to Latin American countries.

Pasha alone is poised to bring between 100 and 200 jobs here while working out of a 174,000-square-foot warehouse designed for use as a processing center. Cars would be stored on 45 acres, and the company holds an option to expand to 100 acres.

Port's key advantages

Sitting in a prime position close to those markets and Mexico, and shipping costs being a motivating factor in company expansions, Port Manatee offers distinct advantages over other Gulf ports.

Port Manatee holds another significant edge over ports that are hemmed in by development. Almost 5,000 acres of open land primed for development surrounds the port, so companies could move in and build large warehouses and factories with ease. "This is the envy of Florida ports," Port Executive Director Carlos Buqueras has stated.

But Pasha needs car companies and suppliers to finalize the arrangement with Port Manatee -- the summit being the vital first step. Now those executives will report back to their company headquarters, and interested parties could spend months figuring out the possibilities.

While the potential for a big influx of jobs with a port-Pasha partnership is encouraging, concrete signs of a strengthening economic rebound abound. Once shuttered restaurants are blossoming back to life under new ownership.

Home construction continues to pick up the pace as developers lay out plans for both new neighborhoods and expansions of others. Commercial construction is back, too, led, of course, by the Mall at University Town Center. New companies are locating here, and existing ones are expanding.

This holiday season holds much hope for the future, more so than in years past.

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