Signs of optimism about Manatee County’s economy

Two years into the slow recovery from the nation’s Great Recession, a wide variety of economic developments just since the beginning of the year point to a brighter future in Manatee County. Last week at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce’s annual dinner, 450 business leaders celebrated last year’s economic gains and heard positive expectations for this year. Based on just some of the headlines from the past five weeks, that optimism is justified.

Florida’s unemployment rate fell into single digits for the first time in 2 1/2 years, at 9.9 percent, while Manatee County outpaced the state with an 0.4 drop to 9.8 percent.

Since December 2010, Manatee’s jobless rate has dropped by 2.4 percentage points. A new University of Florida consumer confidence survey shows a jump in optimism. One of the primary factors, whether Floridians consider their financial status improved, shot up, too.

Manatee’s tourism industry enjoyed a strong 2011, with the number of visitors to Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key up almost 6 percent. Some hospitality stakeholders expect this season to be the best since the recession; many island resorts report solid bookings this season.

Sports tourism alone is showing remarkable strength thanks to several new athletic venues, and the city of Bradenton intends to invest $7.5 million into upgrades for venerable McKechnie Field.

With the region’s population on the upswing, economic growth will follow. Logging almost 400 new homes sales last year, Lakewood Ranch ranks ninth on a list of the country’s best-selling master planned communities.

With $150 million in new projects coming, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the community’s developer, expects to stay in the national spotlight.

Other developers are expanding as well. Lakewood Ranch-based Neal Communities, which sold some 400 homes last year, is extending its reach into Lee and Collier counties. The company will be featured in the March edition of Builder Magazine as “America’s Best Builder.”

Existing home and condo sales are also rising with modest growth expected to continue this year. The real estate market is stabilizing with a healthy inventory, no longer overstocked.

One of the most promising economic signs is the expansion in the manufacturing sector. Last month Sun Hydraulics, which employs 700 people in the production of high-performance hydraulic values, unveiled plans to build a third plant near Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. While the $16 million investment lacks a completion date, the move reflects the company’s confidence in future growth.

A manufacturer of high-grade medical devices that relocated to Manatee from Connecticut last year is also expanding, poised to begin construction on a new international headquarters in Lakewood Ranch. ISPG expects to double its 25-employee workforce over the next few years.

Feld Entertainment will bring 235 new high-paying jobs to the county with an expansion into a 47-acre campus in Ellenton. The producer of the Ringling Bros. Circus and Disney on Ice will also move its global headquarters here from Virginia over the next few years.

New Manatee businesses include Clare Controls Inc, a startup technology company that specializes in home automation systems, and Little Giant Brewing, the county’s first commercial brewery. The Grill at O’Bricks will open soon, bringing more vibrancy to Old Main Street in downtown Bradenton following the recent openings of other restaurants and nightclubs.

Manatee Chamber of Commerce President Bob Bartz cited some optimistic statistics in his “Focus on Manatee” column in Monday’s Herald. A chamber member survey indicated almost 96 percent plan to maintain or grow their workforce and 93 percent believe this year will bring neutral or positive economic growth. The dim outlook of years past is gone.

Growth may be modest in 2012 as several leading economists predict, but we’re heading in the right direction.