With a population that has doubled from 20,000 to 40,000 residents since the 2000 Census, North Port is one of the fastest-growing residential communities in Florida. Last year, the city issued 2,008 housing permits-more than half of all permits issued in Sarasota County.

Now, the 103-square-mile city, sprawling between Venice and Port Charlotte, is experiencing a similar growth in commercial development. At one time, only three percent of the land was zoned commercial; now it's up to 12 to 14 percent.

"You can't beat North Port's location," says Tony Wright, managing member of the 200-acre North Port Park of Commerce, a light industrial and commercial development by Arnold Development of Naples, a commercial developer and property manager with developments from Sarasota to Naples. "It's right in the middle of Tampa and Fort Myers."

When the company began developing the commerce park, located at Toledo Blade and I-75, five years ago, it anticipated high demand; it just underestimated how fast the park would fill. Out of its 75 1- to 1 1/2-acre lots, only 18 remain. Many tenants-an insulation manufacturer and a residential garage door company, for example-have come in response to North Port's rapid residential growth. Wright describes the park as "mixed-use zoning, with a whole cross-section from manufacturing to distribution to warehousing." In 2003, the company's second 36,000-square-foot multi-tenant facility was leased within 60 days. Five businesses-iamong them an auto parts distributor to a disaster clean-up company-opened their doors within days of each other this spring.

The company recently started construction on its third, 40,000-square-foot, multi-tenant building, but Wright says company officials wish they'd started sooner.

In recent years, the city has been putting its efforts into getting commercial to catch up with the residential development by hiring its own economic development director and courting businesses with such strategies as a Web site listing all the available commercial property (www.northportecondev.com/industl-prop.htm).

Economic Director Bob Tunis says these efforts are paying off. "We issued 1,600 business occupancy permits as of January," Tunis says. "That's 300 more than the previous year."

Tunis says several large commercial developments are in the works, including a $50-million hospital and medical complex by developer Frank Menke; the 7,600-acre Thomas Ranch development (formerly called Taylor Ranch) that will be 10- to 20-percent commercial; and the 2,600-acre Panacea development, on the east side of I-75 on Toledo Blade, by Benderson Development and Neal Custom Homes of Bradenton. Tunis says about 20 percent of Panacea will be commercial development.

"We know there will be about 165,000 square feet of retail and an office complex," Tunis says.

Wright says the city's "pro-business stance" has helped attract businesses to Park of Commerce."

"We develop in a lot of communities and we have found that North Port is accommodating," Wright says. "When the businesses talk with city officials, they listen."

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