A refreshed strategy for the future of the Sarasota County EDC

By Art Lambert

The Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County has learned valuable lessons over the years by adapting to the changing needs of the local business community and the broader economic development market. Among those lessons is the need to be more collaborative with stakeholders in Sarasota County, and the importance of being transparent.

As we search for a new President and CEO of the EDC, we are taking this opportunity to chart a more collaborative path with the stakeholders in Sarasota County through our Strategy Refresh Initiative. This initiative involves workshop sessions with leaders of local business organizations in order to harness the collective wisdom of our stakeholders. We believe this concerted approach to economic development will allow us to develop a strategy which will strengthen the business climate in Sarasota County.

This is also the chance for the EDC to focus on the issues that are important to local businesses in today’s economy, such as workforce attraction and properly zoned, available real estate necessary to support economic growth. The importance of economic development to our community is broader and deeper than one organization alone. As an organization, we need to be flexible and adapt to the business needs of the community we serve.

So as part of the Strategy Refresh, the EDC has conducted a survey in conjunction with business license renewal mailings to solicit feedback from more than 32,000 county businesses. We received more than 2,000 responses.

This is incredibly important information for how we can help local businesses expand and thrive, because local business retention and expansion is a big part of what the EDC does. The survey results are allowing us to begin building a data set that will reflect the changing needs of our business community. In this process, we also funnel businesses to our partners where appropriate, such as workforce development groups, chambers of commerce, business associations and so on.

We are also looking at creating a business ecosystem that would be a sort of catalogue of all the business-supporting organizations in the community, an easy access tool for business needs.

But we are thinking even broader. The Sarasota County Commission and this community have given us a plethora of tools in a toolbox to motivate companies to stay, expand or relocate. These tools include an incredibly high quality of life from beaches to the arts, a top-rated school district, comparatively low taxes and regulations and more. We want to put to wise use all of our traditional economic tools along with all of the community-wide tools.

The survey is helping us understand how. But another part of the Strategy Refresh is that we gathered in one room all of the chambers and business organizations in Sarasota County for a “collaboratory.” This identified everyone’s lanes of expertise.

This Strategy Refresh is an expansion of some of the previous initiatives we undertook in response to the business community’s needs, such as workforce attraction on our redesigned web site and efforts to identify and promote available real estate with appropriate land uses to allow facilities to more readily grow or relocate.

For transparency purposes, we believe it’s important to dispel a common misperception regarding incentives. Incentives are a small tool in the vast toolbox that Sarasota County uses to help current and prospective businesses. All incentives are under the direct control of Sarasota County. Changes made in 2012 ensure all incentives are performance-based and no money is dispersed until after jobs are created. In addition to financial incentives, this part of the tool box includes expedited permitting and rezoning, a temporary property tax reduction, and some fee mitigations.

The mission of the EDC is straight-forward: To grow, diversify, and sustain the economy of Sarasota County while enhancing our unique natural and cultural environment. The EDC remains serious about fulfilling its function as the county’s lead economic development organization, and continually pursuing new ways to effectively put our resources to work to provide the greatest benefit to the changing needs of the business community.

The search for new leadership is an opportunity to ensure that we are properly focused, with the goal of economic diversification remaining paramount, and through a process that is more collaborative today than it has ever been.

Art Lambert is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the EDC and President and CEO, S-One Holdings Corp.