The Land of Opportunity

Redevelopment and Economic Opportunity Department of Manatee County
Written by Mark Golombek

In May of 2018, Business in Focus wrote about the Redevelopment and Economic Opportunity Department (REO) of Manatee County in the state of Florida. The focus was on job creation and incentive programs. The county’s population is growing rapidly, and the cost of housing is skyrocketing; however, new development initiatives include affordable housing and plenty of land to work with in and around Fort Manatee. We spoke with REO Director Geri Lopez and Manatee County Economic Development Manager Karen Stewart.
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Since last we spoke, the biggest accomplishment for REO has been the completion of a strategy for the southwest district of the county. The incentive programs put in place have been expanded to attract more medical, office, warehouse distribution, and hotels. Emphasis is also placed on local hiring, so businesses that are expanding would attain additional incentives if they hire local people.

In 2018, some of these incentives achieved the kind of results that the REO can tout as a great example of the success for which it strives. This happened when Miami-based Dedicated Senior Medical opened an office in Bradenton.

“This is their first medical office in Manatee County, and it was a great example of a redevelopment project. They acquired an optimal corner property, right in the middle of our redevelopment district. It was a big pharmacy and was turned into medical offices which provide medical services to seniors,” says Geri.

Dedicated Senior Medical put in an additional $4.5 million of capital investment into the redevelopment plan which will help to create approximately fifty new jobs, including some high-wage, high-skilled positions. The REO committed to providing an additional $150,000.

The REO took a deep look into the county administrative office and the county overall to see how growth would move forward. There was much expansion occurring towards the eastern part of the county.

“We are a rapidly-growing county, and one of the fastest growing in the state of Florida. We were analyzing where that growth should occur. It began in 2012, culminating around 2014, where a decision was made to focus investment on the older, more urban areas of the county. There was an existing infrastructure with transportation, social connections, and an existing employment center,” says Karen.

This redevelopment offered the county many opportunities, and it was a more cost-effective way to take in part of that growth it was experiencing. In 2014, a tax increment financing (TIF) district was created to help to pay for some of the projects and activities. The department was created in 2016 to implement these and make them a reality.

Karen came on board in October of 2016 to create the REO, and she put together a plan that was approved in January of 2019. The plan investigates the demographics of the redevelopment area and takes note of how it may be lagging when compared to the rest of the county in unemployment, median income, and high school education attainment.

“We want to make sure that some of these indicators are moving forward. At the same time, we will stabilize and build the tax base to attract private investment and provide additional opportunities for quality jobs,” says Karen.

Over the next five to ten years, the county will be assessing its urban corridors. There are six major transportation routes, and the REO is looking at some key nodes that have the greatest opportunity for catalytic projects. These are big mixed-use projects that can attract retail, office, and residential developments. This will help to build the tax base and spur additional investment.

Affordable housing is a priority for the county. The need is great due to a rise in housing prices much greater than the rise in wages, with the average price of a single-family home over $300,000. It has adopted a program called Liveable Manatee that encourages affordable housing within a larger development. The program pays for all the impact fees associated with the affordable units and was created mainly for single-family, end-fill lots in the redevelopment area.

“We continue to look for additional tools to encourage affordable housing. One possibility is a community land trust and funding for land acquisition that may be utilized for future development of accessible housing. We are working with the local chamber of commerce and other interested stakeholders to brainstorm some additional tools to encourage that,” says Geri.

REO has been working closely with the planning department and should have changed the existing land development code by the end of March. It should encourage the building of more affordable housing and is a big accomplishment.

Manatee is one of the fastest-growing communities in Florida. It had an increase in the population of ten percent in 2018 and now has 385,000 people. This is a significant rise, and many of the people who live in the southwest district are those who can benefit from affordable housing.

“This is why we have a very focused effort on growing our economic development program, quality jobs with higher wages to be able to keep up with the increase in housing. It is a critical need for residents moving into Manatee,” says Geri.

There has been a great deal of recent success as companies expand and locate in Manatee. The REO has an incentive program for the creation of jobs with higher wages. The REO will help companies get expedited permits and is seeing a boom in the warehouse, distribution, and industrial space through this rapid response program.

In the last couple of years, more than three million square feet of industrial space has been permitted county-wide for light industrial, warehouse, commercial, and office use. It is a trend observed by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) that industrial space is one of the best bets for development at this time in the Tampa Bay area.

“We have also expanded our life sciences facility and are very excited about it. Mercedes Medical grew and moved into a new facility with a $7 million capital investment and the creation of thirty-six high-wage jobs. The new accommodation is in the Lakewood Ranch,” says Karen.

Collaboration Opportunities for Research and Exploration (CORE) at Lakewood Ranch is a biotechnology business campus designed to attract healthcare and life science companies into a cluster. That facility opened recently, and it will be expanding headquarters and distribution for the life sciences sector.

Most redevelopment in Manatee County is in the southwest district and the area that has the TIF district. But REO also serves the greater county which includes Port Manatee, the closest deep-water port to the Panama Canal. More than ten years ago, some special zoning was placed on land around the port to encourage industrial development.

“Over the last ten years, the development has not panned out the way our board hoped for. So, we are working on another initiative called the Northwest County Plan. We are looking at the land around the port and undertaking a market study to determine our best opportunities and what types of companies might be attracted to this area,” says Karen.

Port Manatee has its own master plan. One of the unusual aspects of Port Manatee is that there is the port proper, but outside the port gates are up to five thousand acres of development land for industrial and port use. This has always been a huge asset as the land is zoned for this type of business.

Industrial gases company Air Products now has its headquarters across the street from Port Manatee, and Allied New Technologies 2 Inc. is about to build its plant that will convert salt into the main ingredient of laundry bleach, so there are a lot of land and opportunities.

“We are trying to focus on what land should be developed and what industries we want to attract. It is a unique situation to have all this land zoned and ready for use. The closest seaport to us is Tampa Bay, which is very large and land-locked. There is not a lot of property to expand on,” says Geri.

Manatee has a lot of activity happening at once because there are a lot of opportunities. The last area on which it is working is in developing an inclusive economic development strategy that will concentrate more on the redevelopment area. As part of the analysis it has performed, it was discovered that there are areas in the county that are not benefitting from low unemployment and various booms taking place.

“We are looking at what we need to do from a workforce perspective. We want to create additional opportunities for unemployed and underemployed persons. Hopefully, by next year, we can talk about some of our successes in this area. We want everyone to benefit from the strong economy,” says Karen.

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