Last year, Deborah Cooper, a broker associate with Michael Saunders & Company who is also on the board of Bradenton's Downtown Development Authority, organized a half-day trolley tour of downtown Bradenton for commercial realtors. "I figured we'd cross the border more if we knew what was up there," she says.

Meanwhile, the office space committee of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce (made up of Sarasota's top commercial brokers, who keep statistics on vacancy rates in the county and network about opportunities) helped start an office space committee at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. Its purpose is to encourage both counties' realtors to share knowledge about available office space.

John Swart, vice president of commercial sales for Lakewood Ranch and the chair of Sarasota's office space committee, says, unfortunately, Sarasotans have often avoided Manatee, believing it lacked the sophistication of Sarasota County. "We're intentionally trying to blur the county line and blur the stigma," says Swart. "It's foolish and counterproductive.

Cooper says her tour, sponsored by some of the major builders in Manatee, was a huge success. The tour took 25 Sarasota commercial realtors across the county line into downtown Bradenton. For some, such as long-time commercial realtor Ian Black, the experience was eye opening. "They have some great spaces at great prices," says Black. "There are tremendous opportunities up there. Until last year, I wouldn't have gone up there in a million years, but Bradenton is changing."

Among those changes: The Sandpile on the downtown waterfront is finally being developed with residential and commercial projects (see related article on page ?); the Village of the Arts is bringing creative types to live and work downtown; and a Hope VI grant helped Bradenton build Bradenton Village, a handsome, mixed-income townhouse community that replaced an aging, blight-ridden public housing project. And then there's the attitude of downtown officials. As Bill Theroux, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, says, "We're pro-growth and pro-business. We ask, 'How can we help make it easier to build a building and move to the city?'"

"The attitude of the City of Bradenton is night and day," says Black, who has been a critic of Sarasota's permitting process. "We have a camel and they have a horse."

"That's no longer true," counters Swart. "Sarasota has improved while Manatee County has gotten worse." Swart points to the billion dollars in construction projects in downtown Sarasota as evidence of the county's new attitude. He also mentions Sarasota's SMART program, a rapid response team that has streamlined the permitting process for projects that meet the criteria. But he agrees that Bradenton offers opportunities people don't know about.

There are also some challenges. Last December, Manatee County's office vacancy rate was a sky-high 30-percent (which didn't even include Tropicana's soon-to-be-vacant headquarters in downtown Bradenton) while Sarasota's was a low 8.25 percent. And prices are lower. Cooper reports that rates for high-rise office space in downtown Bradenton go for $13 to $17, tops. In Sarasota, the rates range from a low of $15 per square foot up to $23 a square foot.

Swart says most customers don't care what county they're in: "We really are one business unit. We should and need to be marketing the entire area." -Susan Burns

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