BRADENTON -- Office space is slowly filling up across Southwest Florida, with the exception of downtown Bradenton, where the vacancy rate still hangs near historic highs.
With 36.2 percent of the general office space downtown sitting empty, Bradenton officials are working to better market the area to employers who are opting to locate in Lakewood Ranch or downtown Sarasota instead.
Commercial brokers point to a lack of restaurants, banking centers and viable housing downtown that has deterred companies from filling the space left empty when the recession forced firms to downsize.
"The problem in the Bradenton area has been bad for some time," said Anthony Mazzucca, managing director of NAI Manasota. "The buildings need capital improvements, and the downtown isn't exciting and never really has been a true business center like downtown Sarasota."
The 36.2 percent office vacancy rate in downtown Bradenton for the quarter that ended Sept. 1 was up slightly from the previous three months and relatively flat from the same time last year, according to data from a local commercial brokers committee that compiles commercial real estate rates for both the Manatee and Sarasota economic development corporations.
By comparison, the Sept. 1 office vacancy rate was 22 percent in Manatee County, 12.6 percent in downtown Sarasota and 10.8 percent in Lakewood Ranch.
In fact, the 315,614 square feet of empty office in downtown Bradenton is more than what's now open in downtown Sarasota, where there's nearly triple the total square footage of general office space developed, records show.
Mazzucca compares the problem to Venice, where shops and eateries are thriving along Main Street but downtown office space hasn't caught up.
He said drawing more coffee shops and quick restaurants to Bradenton's downtown corridor should help, giving employees places to congregate during breaks in the workday.
Officials hope the estimated completion next month of the $6.2 million Riverwalk project also will lure employers to fill the office space and, in turn, create jobs.
"This number is not acceptable," said David Gustafson, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. He has the 36 percent occupancy posted on his wall as a motivator. "Bradenton is going through a renaissance, and I look at this as a challenge."
The DDA has long been working to attract a grocery store downtown and bolster the arts, two factors Gustafson predicts will muscle a rebound.
But a quick fix may not been in store.
An overwhelming portion of Bradenton's downtown is government buildings.
That's good for attorneys and consultants who provide work for the county. But it drives away financial-related employers looking to be closer to large banking centers, said Barry Seidel, president and founder of American Property Group of Sarasota.
"The Manatee market has been hit a lot harder than Sarasota due to its blue-collar nature," Seidel said. "Office space is struggling, there's no question. Companies have been looking to go lean and mean, and the spaces they left are just too large."
General office occupancy tends to be the last figure to improve during an economic recovery, following housing, then warehouse and retail. The quality of the facilities available also drives the trend.
Throughout the past year, Lakewood Ranch has held the lowest office vacancies in the region, with rates dropping from 11.9 percent a year ago to the 10.8 percent today.
Brokers attribute the area's success to its proximity to Interstate 75 and Lakewood Ranch residents who wanted to open an office close to their homes.
Unlike downtowns, the commercial space in Lakewood Ranch is not high-rise focused, and also is generally newer than Sarasota and Bradenton.
"(Our) commercial is definitely following the housing market and uptick in new home construction," said Brian Kennelly, president and broker of Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty. "It's more sustained than it's been in the past."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.