My partner and I started our company in Sarasota 27 years ago after moving here from Chicago. We have grown from one company to five and from five employees to 190 globally, 120 of whom are in Sarasota. In 2008, the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County assisted and supported our company in hiring new talent, which had a major impact on our ability to grow. We were eligible to receive an incentive from Sarasota County, and we far exceeded our hiring threshold for that incentive.
We could not have done this without the EDC’s help. We have invested money and time in the EDC, like other Sarasota County businesses large and small, ever since.
What has fueled our company’s growth and sustainability is diversification of our customer base. We aim to ensure no single customer represents more than 5% of our business. This approach served us well during both the recession and the COVID pandemic. We doubled-down our investments in people, technology, marketing, and customer experience. Not only did we survive, but our business actually grew during these two economic catastrophes. Many of our competitors did not make it.
The same philosophy can and must be applied to Sarasota County’s economic future. With new leadership in place after a nearly two-year period that included business slowdowns due to COVID, interim CEOs and a protracted executive search, it is fair to say that our EDC has been through a transition. One thing never changed though: the EDC’s singular mission to grow, diversify, and sustain the economy of Sarasota County.
Why is this important? Because, while we are fortunate to have several strong industries driving our economy, we are disproportionately dependent on them and that leaves us economically vulnerable.
We have seen the impact of this vulnerability first-hand and don’t wish to revisit it. During the Great Recession of 2007-09, we were near ground zero for the national real estate meltdown and lost $16 billion in local GDP, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. In 2018, when a long period of red tide gripped our coast, tourism-related businesses lost an estimated $14.2 million, according to a survey from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. As we have seen, when we lose business and jobs it has a negative ripple effect that expands far beyond the businesses and employees who are directly impacted.
As the only organization in Sarasota County dedicated solely to economic diversification, the EDC and its stakeholders are investing in Sarasota County’s future. It is busier than ever, taking calls from businesses who need its help nearly every day.
In the past and current fiscal year it has, among other things, engaged with 35 businesses interested in relocating here and helped four of them establish here. Offering services such as assistance with site selection, consulting on workforce development, and help with permitting, it also helped five local businesses expand here. In total, they created 355 new jobs and invested $13 million into our local economy. It also has several active initiatives to connect employers who need to fill positions with qualified and trainable job seekers.
Like all organizations, the EDC faces challenges as well – one of the biggest is a significant lack of available land in the county for manufacturing and distribution. It is working with Sarasota County to help preserve these parcels and protect them from rezoning. It is also analyzing its funding mechanisms and expanding its collaboration with the business community to seek new sources of investment. Its efforts must be supported by both public and private funding as it continues its work to benefit the entire community.
Art Lambert is a local business owner board member and past chair of the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: INDICATORS: EDC and its stakeholders are investing in Sarasota County’s future