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Roundtable tackles creating Manatee’s local stimulus

Develop the best marketing campaign Manatee County has ever had and take it on the road.

Dispel the myth that local banks aren’t making loans.

Spend your vacation (and your vacation dollars) here at home.

Suspend new homeowners’ property taxes for one year.

Launch a solar energy project that defines Manatee County as the leader in the green effort.

These are just a few of the wide-ranging ideas we tossed around during our first economic community forum last week.

Almost 30 community and business leaders gathered in the Bradenton Herald’s assembly room for more than two hours, eager to find ways to address the challenge we posed:

How do we create our own local stimulus?

Almost without exception, those gathered voiced their frustration with the national stimulus packages being bandied about. An overwhelming number of people are falling victim to foreclosures, unemployment, bankruptcies and sheer hopelessness.

Regardless of whether you believe in the $787 billion plan (and I pray it works at all levels), we agreed that Manatee County needs a sustainable, comprehensive economic plan to get through these incredibly challenging times.

Our roundtable includes bankers, lawyers, Realtors, builders, manufacturing experts, retailers, educators, a doctor, a retired county commissioner and others.

Business editor Jennifer Rich and I invited each participant for his or her individual expertise and diverse opinions. But throughout the evening, their thoughts merged with encouraging unity on key drivers in this effort.

The common denominators throughout: communication, education and partnership.

We aren’t starting from scratch — far from it. Earnest efforts already abound, but they’re too fractured. And that’s where a group like this can serve the community best, by communicating and bringing the forces together. They can help whittle away needless duplication and unintended competition.

We agreed that Florida’s Gulf Coast still holds an immense natural beauty and quality of life that can attract businesses and new growth. But we can’t rely on that to regain our competitive edge.

“The key ingredients are taxes, insurance and business costs,” Mac Carraway, president of SMR Farms, wrote me in agreeing to join the roundtable. “It’s time we gather up our political and economic will and take a long-term look at these fundamentals.”

That succinct missive is at the heart of our goals. Government officials will be crucial to many of these, and the panel will seek their buy-in and leadership throughout this process. And we know we must move quickly to spark the kind of changes we believe are needed.

One of the more innovative ideas came from Peter Straw, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Area Manufacturers Association. If his business plan for a solar project works, Manatee County very well might become a leader in the Green Movement. Andy Gregory, co-owner and president of Des Champs & Gregory, presented a novel way to force tax incentives to be spent locally. As rich ideas like these continued to form, others suggested setting up a panel of experts to give advice.

Almost parallel to these discussions, Manatee County’s commissioners appear to be working in tandem with the business community. This week, the commission approved county Administrator Ed Hunzeker’s recommendation of a temporary reduction in transportation impact fees. Though the jury is out on long-term ramifications, most agree it’s worth the risk.

Bob Bartz, president of Manatee’s chamber and also on our roundtable, stressed how important building on that political support will be. The Herald’s editorial Saturday noted county government’s shift in its relationship with the drivers of our economic engine. And while the editorial board and others champion these efforts, our role in the newsroom will be as the watchdog of how these partnerships develop, guarding the public trust. We hope to be an agent of change.

The Bradenton Herald and Bradenton.com will provide the venues to communicate these efforts, and to provide a central source that educates — and tracks the local money.

The No. 1 question: Where are the jobs? We think that as these ideas gel, we’ll find more ways to make the answer: “In Manatee County.”

Joan Krauter, Bradenton Herald’s executive editor, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 2000, or jkrauter@bradenton.com.

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