BRADENTON -- Rep. Vern Buchanan met with Bradenton officials on Monday to learn about current downtown development projects, then strolled through the city's Old Main Street, asking business owners how government could help them succeed.
"What more can we do for you?" Buchanan, R-Sarasota, asked the owners of Fav's Italian Cucina.
Maria Favasuli, co-owner, had a direct answer. "Continue support of downtown," she said.
Buchanan said small businesses generate 70 percent of jobs in Flori
da. Assisting small businesses would reduce the state's 9 percent unemployment rate, he said.
"The more successful they are, the more employees they hire," Buchanan said. "We should be there to help them become successful."
Last month, Manatee County had an 8.6 percent unemployment rate, according to data provided by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Rick Willats, general manager of O'Brick's Irish Pub and Martini Bar, told Buchanan he would like government to increase its support of the restaurant industry.
Florida's minimum wage for restaurant employees is "quite high compared to other states," he said.
The state's minimum cash wage for tipped employees is $4.65, while the federal minimum is $2.13, Willats said.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association lobbied "against different things that hurt our industry," Willats said, adding that it was important for Congress to be aware of their needs and consider "all sides" during legislation.
David Gustafson, executive director of the city's Downtown Development Authority, showed Buchanan conceptual plans for the $6.2 million Bradenton Riverwalk project under construction.
The enhanced riverwalk would include a skateboard park, a regatta staging area, and a plaza for different types of festivals. Gustafson estimated that 100,000-200,000 people would visit the area each year following its grand opening in October.
"This is going to be a huge asset," Buchanan said of the project. "This will be a gigantic improvement."
As they walked by the "Pink Palace," Gustafson and Buchanan discussed economic opportunities that could emerge out of a new hotel downtown.
Construction for a new hotel is scheduled to start this summer at the site of the former Manatee River Hotel, creating about 100 construction jobs and profiting nearby restaurants and businesses, Gustafson told Buchanan.
Manatee County's commission is expected to review a parking lease agreement May 8, the final step needed to move forward with construction, said Gustafson.
Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said the city has many developments that it's always pleased to share with other elected officials.
"We have a great story to tell," he said.
Miriam Valverde, Herald metro reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024.