Manatee County hosts small business expo at Central Library

People attend a small business expo Monday at the Manatee County Central Library. 
 GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald
People attend a small business expo Monday at the Manatee County Central Library. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON -- Strong, safe neighborhoods, consumers with good credit and successful businesses are necessary elements of a healthy community, and a small business expo on Monday sought to bring it all together with a focus on Manatee County's Southwest Tax Increment Financing district.

The Southwest TIF was established in October 2014 with a 30-year lifespan. The expo was organized by Manatee County Neighborhood Services after a meeting between the department and "community partners" about the TIF's focus, said Karen Stewart, economic development program manager for Manatee County.

"We wanted to get the word out about small business resources in the community," Stewart said. "We want to connect resources to businesses in the TIF." In addition to fortifying businesses in the TIF, the county has plans to strengthen the neighborhoods around those businesses.

When the Manatee Board of County Commissioners approved the 2015-16 fiscal year budget in September, $780,796 became available for infrastructure improvements in the TIF, Stewart said. Sidewalks, street lighting and median work are examples of planned improvements.

"We hope going forward to establish funds to provide incentives," Stewart said. For now, though, the expo was aimed at retaining businesses already up and running in the Southwest TIF.

Florida Small Business Development Center at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee which is based in Bradenton and covers both Sarasota and Manatee counties, was also at the expo to connect with businesses seeking to tighten financials, develop marketing plans and apply for government contracts. Florida's SBDC is designated by the state Legislature as the "principal provider of business assistance," according to an organization brochure.

All services at the USF Sarasota-Manatee SBDC are free and confidential. About 70 percent of the organization's work is devoted to retaining and growing existing businesses, said David Auxier, a consultant with the organization.

"They have the most potential to grow more jobs," Auxier said. The other 30 percent is time spent on helping startups and new businesses launch. All of SBDC's consultants are certified business analysts and past business owners, Auxier said.

Existing companies seeking to use SBDC's growth acceleration program must have at least three years of financial records for the consultants to review.

"It's a deep dive into the company's financials, operations and marketing," Auxier said. "We spend 50 to 100 hours with the business and find leaking money or money they're leaving on the table. We also help them with marketing plans to help them double their business in a sustainable way." Less than 1 percent of businesses export goods, Auxier said, and the organization helps businesses sort through exporting processes and regulations.

Before businesses can think about exports or picking up money left on the table, many business owners have to apply for loans to start businesses. Manatee Community Federal Credit Union was also at Monday's expo to assure consumers don't have bad credit before applying for a loan, which often begins a trail of failed loan applications. The credit union's poverty elimination programs seek to help consumers boost credit ratings.

The Reliable Ride program is one of the credit union's poverty elimination programs. It is aimed at low-income or credit-challenged individuals to help them obtain a car loan.

"We help them apply for a car loan because the loan itself then helps raise their credit score," said Tameka Burch-Moore, financial empowerment coordinator at Manatee Community Federal Credit Union.

Some businesses, especially those that are Internet-based, get through regulatory and loan-application processes smoothly but find they don't have a place to meet. The Manatee County Central Library built a business incubator during its renovation in February with hopes of solving this problem for businesses.

The incubator provides a wall-mounted TV currently functioning as a smart board. When the library's IT department finishes configuring the TV with the county's WiFi network, up to four computers will be able to connect to the TV and display at the same time in a grid-like view. Computers will be able to connect to the screen in the library or remotely.

Beyond providing a place to meet and share ideas, Manatee County's Library Division Operations Manager Kevin Beach said the incubator assembles the library's business resources in one place. Books such as the Business Resource Handbook were taken out of the library's reference section and given a new home in the incubator. Other materials taken out of the library's physical collection can now be found online.

"We want to engage more with the business community, because they don't know what we have here," Beach said. "We want this room to reflect the needs of the community." Manasota SCORE has used the library for software trainings and mentoring sessions for years, but the library didn't have a good place to house them without occupying study or meeting rooms needed by other library patrons.

Businesses can also list themselves in the library's catalogue, thanks to the community profile system launched last month.

"It's like a local brain trust of programs and organizations," Beach said. Businesses can use the page as a website to direct customers.

"We want businesses to be a part of everyday transactions at the library," Beach said.

Janelle O'Dea, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow her on Twitter@jayohday.