Connecting Community with Opportunity

Written by Ryan Cartner

The Redevelopment and Economic Opportunity Department (REO) of Manatee County is focused on stimulating urban areas. It was formed in 2016 with a goal of bringing economic and community development programs into these areas to create more opportunities for the businesses and residents operating and living within them.
In 2009, prior to the department’s formation and right in the middle of the economic downturn, the Manatee County Board of County Commissioners was focused heavily on job creation. Through a dedicated effort to research solutions, collaborate with community stakeholders, and review what other counties were doing to deal with their economic challenges, incentive programs were developed that would eventually become the core of what REO offers to the Manatee community now.

There are several such programs available to businesses in the county. REO believes that the most important ones are not financial, but instead are related to the department’s ability to help with obtaining permits quickly to build and operate. Through the Rapid Response Program, REO can help businesses navigate regulatory procedures, significantly reducing the amount of time required to become operational. REO meets with businesses looking to locate in Manatee early in the process to help them understand permitting, the time it will take, the cost, and what assistance is available to them.

There is a performance-based job creation incentive in which a company tells the county how many employees it plans to hire and what wages it plans to pay and may receive grants of one thousand to three thousand dollars per job, based on performance. There is also a multimodal impact fee incentive, which enables the county to help businesses with the fees related to constructing a new building. Again, based on the number of jobs created and the wages that are paid, the county can help with up to one hundred percent of the impact fees charged to a project.

For large-scale projects, such as with manufacturing and corporate headquarters, where a significant number of jobs will be created, there is the Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption Program. This was approved by a referendum of the voters in 2013 and can be used by REO when working with companies with significant job creation and capital investment to have some tax expenses exempted.

REO also works with the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to access state incentives including the Qualified Target Industry Tax Refund incentive and workforce development incentives like FloridaFlex.

One of the challenges for businesses operating in the United States is a lack of skilled labor, so workforce development is an important component of what REO does. When a company wants to locate to or expand in Manatee County, REO and the EDC will meet with it, bringing representatives from facilities of higher education that might be able to assist.

One of the county’s most significant successes in this area was with a company called Air Products. The gas and chemical supplier looking to locate its manufacturing in the region several years ago and required welders with a particular skill set that, at the time, was not found within the Manatee community.

The EDC and REO met with representatives from the company and took them to Manatee Technical College. “They were given a tour. They told the college what they needed, and the college set up a program for them,” says Stewart. “They’ve hired practically all of their welders from that program.”

In the 2017 legislature, the State of Florida established the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, and a few months ago, Florida Governor Rick Scott visited Manatee to present the very first award to Manatee Technical College. It was a $200,000 grant to help the school purchase technologically advanced equipment and expand the workforce for advanced manufacturing by providing technology courses. Manatee County was the first county in Florida to be able to access this grant. “It’s just a testament to the forward-thinking of the college to help develop the workforce,” says Lopez.

One of REO’s newer initiatives was begun this year and still in its early stages. It is working with partners on an inclusive economic development strategy with anchor businesses and stakeholders within the county to find ways of connecting the needs of the urban workforce with the needs of the employers. Many of the area’s industrial sites and important businesses are located along the US 301 corridor, and adjacent to that are low and moderate-income neighborhoods.

Another program that the county is further developing is a tax increment financing district for the southwest district of the county. This region of Manatee County encompasses many businesses and also represents a large portion of the population. Such a district enables the county to allocate a portion of property taxes toward economic and community development. The organization is currently working on a plan for the funds raised through this program.

As REO speaks with companies operating within the county, it learns about the issues that affect business growth. In addition to workforce shortages, one of the challenges in Manatee is a lack of affordable housing for employees. Much of the recent population growth in the region has been a result of new subdivisions toward the east district of the county, and much of that construction has been large expensive homes. This is good news for the county in some respects, but it has also created pressure on the housing market, increasing the cost of housing. REO has been working with community partners to find creative solutions that will encourage more affordable housing in the area and is finding success in this.

Collaboration is among the most important elements of REO’s approach to developing the Manatee community and attracting businesses to build the economy. REO constantly works with many organizations to help a prospective company see the value in the area.

“We bring everyone to the table that we need to, right at the start,” says Lopez, “Bradenton EDC, CareerSource Suncoast, Port Manatee, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, representatives from the colleges, the chambers – anybody that we think will help a company make a decision to locate here.” REO was formed to help revitalize the urban areas of Manatee County, and through community and economic development programs, it is achieving its goal.

The driving principles behind how the department operates are accountability, civility, and ethics. As a result of the group’s commitment to these values, Manatee County government is rapidly becoming one of the most business-friendly governments in the state of Florida. “We’ve been empowered by our county administrator, Ed Hunzeker, to work together across many county departments,” says Geri Lopez, director of REO. “We have a seamless collaborative and business-friendly approach to helping companies.”

Redevelopment is an approach that works to revitalize urban areas by adding elements of economic and community development as well as affordable housing. There are often many untapped resources in these areas that have the potential to offer a great deal of value to the community, and through a redevelopment approach, these opportunities can be explored and accessed.

In the eastern part of Manatee County, there has been a recent explosion in population. Providing the necessary services to accommodate this is a very expensive endeavor, and to help deal with these expenses, county administrative officials have realized that it is much more cost-effective to offer these services in the urban and older parts of the city through redevelopment.

The organization targets industries that are identified by the state of Florida, but its biggest successes have been in advanced manufacturing, information technology, and corporate headquarters. The county also targets companies in the sports performance industry. It is home to IMG Sports Academy, Premier Sports’ campus, and a variety of manufacturing companies and research outfits related to sports development.

Manatee County is on the rise. “The quality of life here cannot be matched,” says Karen Stewart, county economic development official. There are beautiful beaches, the one and a half mile Riverwalk park along the Manatee River, an art center, the Bishop Planetarium and Museum, a robust downtown that is more developed every day, and much more.

Most appealing to businesses looking to locate in Manatee County is a well-established business community consisting of more than four hundred manufacturers and a growing population of over 380,000 people. “Businesses like to be near their suppliers and near their customers,” says Stewart. “We have a solid foundation here.”



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