MANATEE -- Nine Spanish business owners and leaders on a one-week junket to Florida say the U.S. market is the key to growing their profits. They're also pretty sure that Manatee County may be the place to get started.
On Wednesday, the visitors from the Spanish province of Catalonia got to know the county in person, touring locations as diverse as IMG Academy, county utilities offices and Bradenton's Riverwalk. The visit was the second part of an economic mission between the Bradenton-Sarasota area and Catalonia. Eleven months ago, eight local business people flew into Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, to promote Manatee and Sarasota counties as a place for Spanish businesses to start up U.S. subsidiaries.
Three days into their visit this week, at least some of the Spanish visitors were convinced.
"We're very sure about coming to this market," said Oscar Vilumara, the general manager of a Barcelona consulting firm that assists Spanish companies locating in the U.S. "We see the United States as a huge and very active market."
According to the participants, the back-and-forth economic mission is bringing Spanish businesses to the area and specifically Port Manatee. Ivan Mutis, a Spanish consultant who arranged both ends of the mission, said at least three companies -- trade show booth maker ABTech, recycling equipment maker Recialum and Vilumara's company -- will locate their first U.S. offices in an office suite at the port.
This week's visit gives the Spanish delegation a chance to meet with area business people, politicians
and commerce regulators. Included in the group is a luxury perfume maker, an attorney, a manufacturer and a Spanish architect who claims to have found the lost city of Atlantis.
"We're bringing those Spanish companies over here to get the lay of the land," said Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation and a member of last year's trade mission.
The visitors drew a crowd for an afternoon meet-and-greet session at Port Manatee. Ron Nespor, a Sarasota resident who invented the slide-back auto transport that became essential to the towing industry over the past three decades, was at the event to develop his ties with the Spanish business community. He said he has formed a new venture that will manufacture a new generation of vehicle transports to accommodate computer controlled and electric vehicles.
"We have an initial relationship with a Spanish company to establish a home base in Manatee County," he said.
That sort of investment is the goal of the cross-Atlantic relationship. Carlos Buqueras, the port executive director, said he wants to see Spanish businesses locating their operations at Port Manatee. Although he did spend the better part of two days in Miami and Broward County with the delegation, Buqueras said the port's lower startup costs and direct access to Mexican, Cuban and Central and South American markets will draw Spanish business away from where they have traditionally landed in the U.S.
"Generally these companies stay in Miami, they never leave Miami," Buqueras said.
Several companies, including two headed by Vilumara, are already printing business cards with a Port Manatee address.
The delegation will continue to travel Manatee and Sarasota counties through Friday. Upcoming events include a briefing at USF Sarasota Manatee from foreign direct investment experts, a tour of Palmetto's historic district and a visit to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027 or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.