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Manatee doesn’t attract industrial growth. Officials say it’s time to change that

Port Manatee’s capital improvements to cost upward of $33 million

The Port's capital improvements include road and railroad improvements, security upgrades, berth rehabilitation and more.
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The Port's capital improvements include road and railroad improvements, security upgrades, berth rehabilitation and more.

When it comes to attracting industrial business, Manatee County is being steadily outpaced by some neighboring counties. Catching up with the competition will require a new mindset and lots of cash.

Last August, the Board of County Commissioners authorized staff to hire a consulting firm to analyze how officials could use about 6,700 acres spanning from Interstate 75 to Port Manatee to entice industry leaders like Walmart, Amazon and Publix to build manufacturing, e-commerce and shipping facilities in the area.

“The purpose of the study was to review all the existing plans and infrastructure and gauge our stakeholders for feedback and conduct a market analysis to understand our economic drivers and our opportunities for pursuing them,“ said Geri Lopez, director of the county’s Redevelopment and Economic Opportunity Department.

Manatee trails Hillsborough, Polk

As the report laid out, there’s no shortage of industrial giants bringing thousands of jobs to Central Florida. Stantec, the consulting firm hired to conduct the study, compared Manatee to Hillsborough and Polk counties, where FedEx, Walmart and others operate millions of square feet in industrial facilities.

Of the 181.1 million square feet of industrial space in the three counties, only 13 percent, or 24.5 million square feet, is in Manatee, according to Stantec’s analysis.

Looking at the future pipeline for attracting more industrial development, the numbers are even more dire. While Polk and Hillsborough are looking to bring a combined 21.6 million square feet in the near future, Manatee is set to only add another 1.2 million square feet.

“Until we start thinking outside the box a little bit, we’re going to keep missing out on major development,” said Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. “That property is sitting there ripe for us to do it, but this county is going to have spend some money.”

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Giant cargo handling cranes stand at the ready at Port Manatee. An ambitious expansion plan is envisioned to keep up with business growth at the port. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Most of the land within the study area is vacant, and there is some appeal for developers to introduce new clients in Northwest Manatee. The county already offers several incentives, and proximity to Port Manatee and U.S. 41 are major positives, according to Jared Beck, a Stantec planner who specializes in redevelopment.

Businesses find better benefits in other counties, study says

So why is Manatee County being overlooked in favor of its neighbors? Stantec pointed to a number of reasons, including the lack of a direct connection to I-75, a limited amount of utility design, an absence of area marketing and the county’s policy that requires developers to pay for infrastructure improvements in undeveloped areas.

The lack of a direct connection to I-75 might be the biggest thorn in Port Manatee’s side. Beck urged the county to continue working with the Florida Department of Transportation for another interchange north of Moccasin Wallow Road. In April, the Port Authority considered the idea of building a new connector road from Port Manatee to I-75, which was estimated to cost $328 million in 2014.

Other counties have the benefit of building closer to major corridors. Amazon’s 1.1 million-square-foot fulfillment center in Ruskin sits just off of I-75. Plant City has plans to build out 6 million square feet of industrial space over the next 10 years. The key to those developments, Beck pointed out, has been partnerships brokered between government officials and the prospective developer.

Port Manatee is described in this promotional video published by Manatee County Government in 2017 as Southwest Florida's premier deepwater seaport located at the entrance to Tampa Bay. It adds more than $2.3 billion annually in local economic imp

“The magic word is infrastructure. Every one of these had worked some sort of deal and the government invested in infrastructure,” said Commissioner Betsy Benac after Stantec highlighted examples of major warehouse facilities that have been built elsewhere. “That has been our bugaboo. We refuse to invest in infrastructure, we wait for the developer to put in infrastructure.”

“I mean, that’s a great model for perhaps residential development, but we have some public-private partnerships on infrastructure, and I really think we should be looking that way,” Benac added.

Those kinds of partnerships are definitely part of the puzzle, but there’s more to be done if Manatee wants to compete, Lopez explained.

“There’s no one big thing to do, but there are lots of small things we can do,” she said.

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The crumbling Piney Point Road, which leads to the entrance of Port Manatee, will be getting some attention from Manatee County within the next year. More improvements are envisioned by Florida Department of Transportation in the future. James A. Jones Jr. jajones1@bradenton.com

Manatee must figure out industrial targets

The most important objective for the county moving forward is for commissioners to decide on the exact category of industrial business they’d like to see come into the area. That way, the Utilities Department can figure out what kind of lines and pipes need to be installed and the economic development department can pinpoint which users they should be negotiating with.

“When you’re talking about economic development and you’re talking about how is it that you’re marketing and selecting sites and you’re talking to companies about coming, you need to have a very clear understanding of what your market is and your own competitive advantage compared to other counties, other places and what they’re doing,” Lopez suggested.

“To do that, you need to understand your targets. Just like with anything else, you need understand what it is that you’re going to go after, but if you say just manufacturing, that can cover lots of different things,” Lopez continued. “What kind of manufacturing? How is it that you go through and from a very large set of things, kind of narrow it down to exactly what your focus is?”

For at least one commissioner, the focus should be on job creation.

“My vision is that we need jobs,” said Commissioner Priscilla Whisenant Trace, whose district includes the study area. “That’s what it comes down to me and this seems like the logical place to have jobs. I think we need to invest in this area. I think it’s good for jobs, but we need to get down, price it and see what we want to do.”

Stantec highlighted three “growth drivers” that could significantly improve development near Port Manatee — increasing the tonnage that comes through the port, expanding local manufacturer output in Manatee County and going after e-commerce companies that will need additional warehousing and distribution space as online retail trends continue to increase.

What comes next for Northwest Manatee?

Within 10 years, it would be reasonable for the county to add at least 620,000 square feet in industrial development. An aggressive version of that short-term plan would shoot for 2.5 million square feet of industrial facilities.

Each growth scenario leans heavily on Manatee County expanding operations at the port considerably. The Port Authority recently approved a $33 million capital improvement plan, and addressed the need to spend $127 million over the next five years on improvements, as well as $500 million over the next 20 to increase the port’s footprint and keep up with growth.

Other recommendations focused on the vacant land closer to the interstate. Beck said the county may want to reconsider its policy that forces developers to fund infrastructure upgrades. Commissioners will also need to improve local roads,

Both Buckeye and Piney Point roads are only two-lane corridors without shoulders — unfavorable conditions for large trucks carrying cargo.

Those upgrades become dire when factoring in Port Manatee’s rapid growth, increasing shipping tonnage by about 8 percent each year. A significant chunk of the design legwork was completed years ago, according to county staff, but it’s up to commissioners to prioritize the improvements.

“I would suggest we figure out a price for Buckeye. We need to figure out what we need to do,” Trace said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to host a future workshop to discuss improving Buckeye Road with a new alignment and work with the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. to jumpstart development within the study area.

Ryan Callihan is the Bradenton Herald’s County Reporter, covering local government and politics. On the weekends, he also covers breaking news. Ryan is a graduate of USF St. Petersburg.
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