PORT MANATEE -- Keying on the expected economic opening of Cuba and a growing South American consumer market, a group of businesses, economic development professionals and county and port officials are planning a trip to the Catalonia area of Spain to market Manatee County.
Scheduled for mid-September, the trip is unusual. In search of direct investment in local manufacturing, looking to serve as a hub for the Cuba market as well as other import and export opportunities, the trade mission will focus solely on business for the Manatee-Sarasota area. Florida trade trips are often political in nature at the county and state level, so doing trade talks without political influence from Tallahassee or the county courthouse is a novel approach.
"Why wait for the state to always do the work for us," said Port Manatee executive director Carlos Buqueras, one of the trip's boosters. "We'll be the only ones in front of them."
The trade mission follows a good deal of recent Spanish interest in the port and
Manatee County. Last year, business consultant Ivan Mutis brought representatives from 10 Spanish manufacturing companies to Manatee County to meet with local businesses and economic development groups. Three have since expressed serious interest in either locating branch facilities here or entering into a joint venture with a local company.
Joining the effort to promote the trip are the economic development corporations and chambers of commerce in both counties, the Sarasota Manatee Manufacturers Association and members of county government. The point of the trip is to generate more jobs in the counties, and to build business for Port Manatee. The port, the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation and Cadence Bank are sponsoring the trip. Sarasota County economic development officials have been invited to join the trade mission.
With about 300 of the approximately 700 Spanish-owned businesses operating in the United States located in the Miami area, Mutis said he wants to bring part of the reverse Spanish gold rush here. He has already convinced some Spanish companies to do business in Manatee County. Oto Cycles, a Barcelona-based maker of electric bicycles, and exotic car maker Tramontana have made verbal commitments to open local manufacturing plants.
Other Spanish companies looking into doing business locally include mattress maker Reset and cosmetics nozzle maker Alespri.
Mutis, who promotes international commerce connections through his consulting company, GM&L, said government and business groups in the Manatee-Sarasota area have a more helpful and pragmatic approach to attracting foreign manufacturers than Miami-area officials. The counties offer financial incentives to new business and relocation assistance.
"For some kinds of business, Miami is the right place," Mutis said. "Here, they support you."
September's trade mission could include up to 20 local businesses and more than 40 people. Scheduled for September 15-18, the trip is being planned to include one-on-one business meetings and networking events with the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce and Foment de Treball, Catalonia's largest employers association.
Business representatives taking the trip will pay between $750 and $1,850, plus airfare. Pricing is based on the amount of access businesses want to potential Spanish partners and the number of business representatives from a particular company taking the trip.
Fermin Miranda, a member of the Bradenton Area EDC's board of directors and a vice president with Cadence Bank in Bradenton, said he is particularly excited about the prospect of Spanish companies entering into joint ventures with local manufacturers. It's a quick way to bring Spanish products into the market, build capital in established Manatee and Sarasota county companies and generate jobs.
"As they become successful, they spin off and create more jobs," he said.
Buqueras, a Catalonia native, said the region is a good place to make manufacturing connections. More than 41,000 manufacturers operate in the Spanish state. Many of them will want to have a presence in Florida when an expected trade relationship between the U.S. and Cuba opens in coming years. Goods can be shipped to the island nation overnight from Port Manatee, Mutis said. From Spain, the trip takes at least eight days.
Spain is currently one of Cuba's top five trading partners.
Southwest Florida is also strategically located to service South America. It is Spain's second-largest export market.
Mutis and Buqueras say they like the trade mission's chances for success. The two areas already have connections based on current interest from Spanish companies. In addition, international natural gas liquefier Air Products recently announced that it is establishing a research center in Barcelona, Catalonia's capital. Air Products opened a manufacturing facility adjacent to Port Manatee early this year.
The registration deadline for the trade mission is July 31. Those interested in taking the trip can contact Mutis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.