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Tigers — developers

PETER O’CONNOR
Guest Columnist
opinion@lbknews.com

Late on another hot and humid August morning I headed over the bridges to the big city, Sarasota, for the monthly meeting of the movers and shakers of the county, the Tiger Bay Club. This is a test of endurance. Inside the pleasantly cool restaurant, Michaels on East, I heard what I took as a great remark, “You really have to like chicken to put on a jacket on a day like today.” Good line, eh?

I have been attending these meetings of the elite of Sarasota County first, to stay current on what might be going on, and second, to keep up on any Longboat Key interest items. These items would include, of course, which of our movers and shakers might attend. That August day found the usual faithful diners: Hal Lenobel, Vince DeLisi, Michael Welly, Kelly (Martinson) Fernandez, Andy Cohen, Jeremy Whatmough, Al Hogle, BJ Webb plus occasional attendees David Brenner and Gail Bartow. That’s 10 and I, a non-mover; a pretty good showing. As the topic for that Thursday was economic development I would have expected a better showing from our newer LBK shakers; they weren’t there. Brenner, Webb and Bartow carried the message I suppose. At least they were present, no questions though.

The Tiger Bay president, John Patterson, introduced the moderator for the day’s meeting. John uses this changing moderator format; I think it is an improvement. Today’s proceedings were moderated by C.J. Fishman, businessman and former chairman of the EDC of Sarasota County. You see the Brenner connection; that’s good.

The panel was composed of Mark Huey, president/CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County (Manatee County has a similar body, which also includes Brenner); Randy Welker, economic development coordinator for downtown Sarasota; Allan Lane, economic development manager for the city of North Port and Alan Carlson, CEO of Sun Hydraulics. I was impressed, neither favorably nor unfavorably, that this is already a game of fulltime players. They speak their own language. I listened with an open mind.

Fishman as moderator was most engaging. He’s good at this. He noted that strong businesses can give the most back to the community.

“Making money is important,” he said.

He asked the panel to speak just a bit about themselves. Some even followed his lead on brevity.

Carlson spoke of Sun Hydraulics, which started in Sarasota with 700 employees, with 1,000 employees worldwide. His public corporation was a $30 million business in 1990, $70M in 2000, $150M in 2010, heading for $200M this year. He said that business development for a corporation is like economic development for a community. Carlson noted his goal is the creation of shareholder wealth; a byproduct of that is the creation of jobs. I liked this guy.

Welker, a newcomer to Sarasota, had similar experience in Delray Beach and mostly in Cincinnati.

Lane said he had 18 years of similar experience for the city of Atlanta, came to North Port in 2008.

Huey, the new EDC head for the county, comes from long involvement in development in Tampa. He said he is involved, not defined. He sounds positive. He said he is a Gator, maybe a diminishing advantage in this area.

Moderator then asked questions of his guests. First: what is the proper role for government in economic development?

Lane, of North Port, said it is not government’s role to create jobs. He thinks the government’s role is to “set the table,” create a business environment. He said that business should be cheerleaders for the community. Spoke of reaching the new normal. He lost me there.

Carlson on government said that he wants government minimum. I didn’t hear this line as well received among the Tigers in the room. Lane said his city wants to be collaborative.

Moderator then asked, in tight situations like this what can governments do?

Welker spoke of teamwork. He wants to make Sarasota the best downtown. So?

Moderator asks about incentives like tax incentives?

Huey of EDC said, “pro-business climate means not getting in the way.” He says the public sector should have tools in place to fit opportunities. Incentives are important tools but not the most important. Goal, he said, is diversification of the economy. Incentives play a role in winning at the end of the competition.

Carlson, of Sun, said he is leery of incentives.

Fishman asked if the county’s incentive fund should be replenished. Three of the four panelists said yes.

From floor: one asks how the current economic situation affects Sarasota?

“If lower taxes I’m all for it,” says Carlson. I didn’t hear any support in the house.

The panel answered a few general questions from Tigers on the floor. Audience participation this day was rather subdued. I was surprised, as many here say that this topic, economic development, is the hottest game in town. Maybe not?

As I listened to the day’s rather dull, I’m afraid, discussion I heard one recurring theme. I knew there had to be one, and I listened. That is the common statement that creating jobs seems to be the mark of successful economic development. OK, but what else? I didn’t hear any other marks for success in economic development.

So, what is the meaning of all this for any or even all similar island communities?

Is Longboat Key looking for jobs? Doubtful.

EDC folks said Thursday that government should help. I guess that we here have received that message. See our help to development, economic and otherwise.

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