The idea to open a Bradenton business incubator with networking opportunities -- to nurture young entrepreneurs with startup companies -- has been percolating for more than 10 months. Today, the Bradenton Innovation Center stands on the cusp of realizing that goal.
That's just one of the latest efforts to diversify Manatee County's economy, now dependent on tourism and agriculture.
The Bradenton Innovation Center hopes that by providing mentoring and training resources, young entrepreneurs will grow attached to the community and remain here to grow their business.
Community, business and education leaders have long looked at strategies to stem the brain drain as young adults find greater opportunities elsewhere. The Innovation Center would fill one niche.
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The brainchild of Sara Hand and Stan Schultes from the company Spark Growth, the center now has a home thanks to the city of Bradenton -- the old firehouse at 912 Seventh Ave. E., an aging and empty structure.
Last week, the city's Downtown Development Authority entered the picture as the incubator co-founders made a pitch for assistance -- financially or administratively -- in the creation of an inviting atmosphere for young talent.
In a novel approach, the city could deed the property to the DDA, which could receive grants from other nonprofits for this project, as City Clerk Carl Callahan explained at an authority board meeting.
But there's one hitch: Once the Innovation Center achieves nonprofit status, that property would be exempt from taxes. That conflicts with one of the goals of the DDA and the surrounding Community Redevelopment Agency -- fostering for-profit businesses that add to the tax base.
But that's the goal of the Innovation Center, boosting economic development via new businesses.
Major donors to the projects are already lining up: Bright House Networks, offering to install fiber optic cable and provide furniture; and the Kiwanis Club, considering a $200,000 grant for building renovations.
That strong community support should weigh heavily as the DDA board and staff further examine the idea of assuming ownership of the firehouse. The board did indicate support, though, a positive sign.
Another compelling bit of information cannot be overemphasized: A 2011 University of Central Florida study discovered a high rate of return from four of its well established incubators -- for every dollar invested, $10 flowed back into the Orlando community. Nine other UCF incubators realized a $5.04 return on every dollar.
That kind of tidy profit holds promise for Bradenton.
The Innovation Center dovetails nicely with the mission of Realize Bradenton, the city-bred nonprofit. One of the organization's prime goals is cultivating a place that attracts the creative class, thus spurring economic diversity via innovative and technological talent.
We'd like to see this Innovation Center proposal move forward.
Other new efforts to diversify the area's economy include:
On Sept. 10, the Sarasota-Manatee chapter of BioFlorida, which represents the bioscience industry, will hold its first BioTech Expo at New College. The intent is to raise the profile of the region's science education programs to inform industry that Manatee and Sarasota has a new workforce to serve relocating or expanding biotech companies.
Port Manatee is opening an international trade hub to attract companies here. This trade-based business incubator will offer low-cost office space, and port staff and a network of companies will help shippers, distributors and manufacturers move their products around the globe. Port Manatee is already collecting tenants.
Of course, the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation is a key player in diversification, too, constantly at work in business recruitment.
All of these positive game plans -- and others -- put Manatee County in a stronger position for economic growth.