by Dave Bullock

Featured in The Herald Tribune on 9-28-2020

Among the ongoing changes wrought by COVID is an unexpected shift toward local manufacturers expanding in Sarasota County. This is a silver lining for the economy as manufacturing is more resilient and better paying when including benefits than most of the service sector jobs that are being lost due to the fallout of the virus and ensuing shutdowns.
The strongest projects that the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County has in pipeline right now are all local manufacturers looking to add a significant number of jobs — a situation rare indeed in our local economy. Right now, the EDC is actively engaged with eight companies on different projects totalling about 400 new jobs and including a capital investment of about $20 million.

Six of those eight projects have come in the past two months, well into the pandemic, and are the result of overarching dynamics in the Florida and American economy — the restructuring of supply chains throughout the United States.

One of the great tools we have to help keep these manufacturers and other businesses that want to expand in Sarasota County is the Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption (EDAVTE), which was created to encourage existing businesses to expand and new businesses to relocate in Sarasota County, creating new job opportunities. EDAVTE authorizes the county to grant qualifying businesses a property tax exemption of up to 100 percent for up to 10 years and is on the Nov. 3 ballot for renewal.

When COVID hit our shores, many manufacturers had to close shop when they could not get the parts and supplies they needed to continue because those were manufactured overseas, particularly in China. The suddenly unreliable relationship with Chinese suppliers and others was a bit of a wake-up call to American manufacturers.

So there has been a shift to bring more of a manufacturing firm’s supply chain either in-house or at least in-country. And that is leading to greater demand for manufacturing space and jobs in Sarasota County.

This brings benefits to our local economy. Our heavy reliance on tourism, retirees and construction develops a service-heavy economy that is vulnerable to deep downward swings. When the economy turns down, people’s spending habits can change overnight — as they did in COVID. Luxury and leisure are cut, resulting in less travel, less going out to eat and so on.
But manufacturing is a more resilient industry because people still need the basics, from paper towels and hand sanitizers to hydraulic pumps and industrial valves. That resiliency is apparent in this surge in manufacturing while our service sector remains challenged.

Manufacturing wages for “touch labor” — the manual laborers in the industry — are often on the low end. But overall they are better than average. Sarasota County has 8,392 manufacturing jobs at last count, with an average wage of $52,412. The average wage countywide is $47,777 Additionally, they tend to come with much better benefits, such as good health insurance, stock options, 401(k) plans, child care or after school play rooms and some even have a nurse on site. All this stretches the income.

Further, these jobs can be almost immediately available, with many companies training new employees on the job. For those who have lost service sector jobs with no idea how long before they may return, this is a great option. And some people turn it into a career and can end up in lower management making a decent living.

So how can we as a community take advantage of this opportunity to diversify our economy?

  • Renew the Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption for another 10 years. Reauthorizing this retains a critical tool to help local businesses expand.
  • Work with and augment career training organizations such as CareerEdge and CareerSource and their training efforts. There are a lot of displaced workers ready to learn new skills.
  • Review our current programs for helping manufacturers specifically expand here. This may include reconsidering part of the incentive structure measuring job-creation, and ensuring the process is as streamlined as possible.
  • The EDC will continue to aid manufacturing expansion and all of our local companies with everything in our toolbox.

If any Sarasota County manufacturers or other businesses are looking to expand now, please contact me at [email protected] or 941-309-1200.

Contact Dave Bullock, interim president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, at [email protected]. EDC is the public/private partnership leading economic diversification efforts by working with community and regional partners.