Gary Spraggins lives on Palm Island in Charlotte County and uses three forms of transportation to cover the 42 miles to his job as an administrative assistant for logistics and support with Sarasota County. Residents aren't allowed to drive cars on the island, so he begins his commute in a golf cart. Then he takes the ferry to the mainland, where he keeps his car.

On at least a dozen occasions in the past five years, Spraggins has missed the last ferry ride home at 10 p.m. What then? He swims the 120 yards. "In the dark, you hear a splash, and you tend to swim a little faster," says Spraggins, who keeps a swimsuit in his car and puts his clothes in a waterproof bag that he ties to his leg.

Spraggins may be the most determined of the commuters traveling from their homes to work in neighboring Gulf Coast counties, but is certainly not alone.

Skyrocketing home prices and property taxes in Sarasota County have forced residents to alter commuting patterns, Spraggins believes. He knows of about 25 employees of Sarasota County who drive 30 miles or more to work from every direction. "People won't hesitate to move to Manatee or Charlotte counties and commute wherever they need," Spraggins says.

And often, this means crossing county lines and the Skyway. Jennifer and Ken Shannon thought they were living the perfect compromise. Both engineers, they commuted to work from their home in Brandon, he to downtown St. Petersburg, she to her job with Sarasota County. According to their odometers, it was almost an even deal.

Yet with a baby boy on the way, they knew career and lifestyle choices had to be made. The Shannons decided to move, and started looking in Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for a new house, hoping to somehow balance driving distances and domestic schedules.

Suddenly, it dawned on the young couple: It wasn't the mileage, it was time management and quality of life.

They would reside in St. Petersburg. Not for her, but for Ken, who often endured a two-hour battle through the commuter jungle of the Tampa Bay area, nearly twice as long as it ever took Jennifer to reach Brandon from Sarasota. "I've seen the traffic going from St. Pete to Tampa," Jennifer says. "I'd much rather work in Sarasota."

So each work morning Jennifer straps six-month-old Kenny into his car seat and treks across the Skyway Bridge to her job at the Center for Watershed Management. She has made the drive for one year now and still finds it fairly seamless. And daycare options were even better in Sarasota than St. Petersburg. "This way, our son is at least close with one of us during the day," she says, "not plopped somewhere in between."

Home to work covers 47 miles, takes one hour and change, and includes her stop at the daycare facility to drop off little Kenny and a few minutes of chitchat. "People are gravitating more to Manatee and Sarasota," says Jennifer, who knows of at least seven co-workers who live in St. Petersburg and Brandon and commute south.

For reasons practical, economic and just plain pleasurable, the Shannons represent the business future as the Gulf Coast marketplace spreads east past I-75 and stretches north to Pinellas and Hillsborough. Both sides of the Skyway Bridge already bustle with commuter traffic. Ditto for points in south Sarasota County as North Port and Venice join the boom.

Data from the 2000 Florida Census, anecdotal evidence from marketing professionals and testimonials of commuters themselves indicate a mobile workforce growing faster than experts can plug numbers into a spreadsheet.

Opinions vary, but nobody disputes that Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are intertwined as never before and destined to become a regional marketplace. Indeed, people willing to commute have become a very powerful part of the economic equation that determines where businesses locate and developers build.

"A lot of people who are new to the area will convey that, too. They don't see the Skyway Bridge and body of water as dividing lines," says Betty Carlin, communications manager for Tampa Bay Partnership.

The Tampa-based partnership-a CEO-led economic development organization-works with Sarasota, Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco and Hernando counties in marketing the region nationally and internationally. Carlin recalls hearing the term "Bridge Snobs" used in meetings, referring to those people who resisted being tied together by the Skyway Bridge and wouldn't travel across it in either direction.

No more. Now commuters could wave to each other as they head in opposite directions via any of the primary highways. According to the 2000 Florida Census, more people from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties (1,651) actually head to work in Sarasota County than do workers from Sarasota who travel north to their jobs (1,601). About 4,996 workers drive from Manatee County to jobs in Hillsborough and Pinellas; fewer Hillsborough and Pinellas workers (3,645) travel south to Manatee.

"More and more people, especially the new arrivals, look at this as one market," says Nancy Engel, executive director of the Economic Development Council at the Manatee Chamber of Commerce. "And not just where they go to work, but what they do for entertainment, too."

The census showed that 21,640 people from Manatee County travel to work each day in Sarasota County, representing about 16 percent of Sarasota's workforce. From Sarasota to Manatee, almost 10,000 head north, accounting for nine percent of Manatee's workers. Manatee's generally lower housing costs and property taxes were widely cited for the disparity in those numbers.

"It's significant, but it's a natural thing to have that kind of flow when you have two fairly large areas so close to each other like Sarasota and Bradenton," says Kathy Baylis, vice president of the Sarasota County Committee for Economic Development. "We're maturing. Economically, we are becoming a business community."

Of the seven counties associated with the Tampa Bay Partnership, Hillsborough remains the economic hub and has a net flow of 48,550 commuters. Sarasota, with 11,793, is the only other county that has more workers coming in than going out. (See chart).

"Clearly, we are a job-creating machine here," Baylis says. "We have a strong economy that translates into jobs for people here and those coming from other counties."

Although the census numbers are four years old, Manatee County has emerged as the commuter pivot point as Lakewood Ranch, Riviera Dunes and other developments and businesses fuel growth. "The developers are really working to bring people here, regardless of where they work," says Tanya Lukowiak, executive director for the city of Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency.

Indeed, Palmetto is aggressively marketing itself as a pivotal regional midpoint. As Lukowiak points out, Palmetto has riverfront and bayfront property, too, sits only 23 miles from downtown St. Petersburg, less than that to Main Street in Sarasota, and has quick access to I-275, I-75 and other key arteries.

A billboard near the southbound lane of Highway 301 just before the DeSoto Bridge conveys that effort: "The Truth About Palmetto," it blares, and underneath that headline a little-known fact about the city is featured, such as, "Thriving. Fastest-Growing Community in Tampa Bay." Every two months, the informational tidbit changes. "It's too early for hard numbers, but we are undergoing a transformation," Lukowiak says.

The trend appears to be unstoppable throughout the region: If you create jobs and build homes, they will come-and they will commute.

Some Sarasota County employees might no longer need to make the morning drive to the office before heading into the field. Spraggins says there has been talk of assignments being sent via e-mail-an idea that might be tested next year-thus allowing people to start their day at home and changing commuting trends even more.

"Bottom line, it's what you make of your time," Spraggins says.

Brad Kramer, a pilot with Northwest Airlines, retired from the Air National Guard in Massachusetts and moved to Lakewood Ranch four years ago. With his base in Minneapolis, Kramer, his wife and six-year-old twin son and daughter could live almost anywhere. Like many transplants from Northern cities, the traffic eventually wore down Kramer, in his case from Cape Cod to Boston's Logan International Airport.

"It was horrible," Kramer says. "It was 64 miles, and the first 51 took 51 minutes. The last 13 miles took an hour to an hour-and-a-half. I came home from a trip one day and said, 'That's it, we have to leave.' Once we moved down here, it's like all the moons are lined up or something."

Now, Kramer clocks his trip to Tampa International Airport at 59 miles and approximately one hour from his home. He makes the drive three times a month for the flight to his base, where his assignments take him to Hawaii, Europe and Asia. "Kramer estimates there are 10 Northwest pilots and flight attendants who live in the area and about 40 in all from other airlines. "We're not 9 to 5-ers. We're used to traveling," he says. "I wouldn't go back unless Northwest pulled out of Florida. Not in a million years."

Adrian Patmagrian Evans seldom works a conventional schedule, either. She grew up in Sarasota and attended high school here, before leaving for college and a career in finance. She worked for 10 years in Washington D.C., and returned to Sarasota in 1994.

For several years she's made the 56-mile drive to her job as a senior vice president for Ziegler Capital Markets Group in downtown St. Petersburg.

Evans recalls as a youngster taking the train to Tampa for the Gasparilla parade because the distance seemed so far to drive. Business owners still hung out their shingles and hired people from the newspaper classifieds, not Monster.com.

""I don't recall any of the adults commuting anywhere but across town," Evans says. ""Commuting was something people in the cities did."

For a time, Evans's career called for commuting by plane between Sarasota and Atlanta. She quickly observed another trade-off professionals are making, one that perhaps could become part of the commuter trend. "You would be shocked," she said, "to know how many people get on a plane twice a week in order to call this area home." 

COMMUTER COUNT

Number of workers and where they go.

Manatee to Sarasota: 21,640

Sarasota to Manatee: 9,957

Manatee to Hillsborough: 2,586

Hillsborough to Manatee: 2,193 

Manatee to Pinellas: 2,410

Pinellas to Manatee: 1,452

Sarasota to Pinellas: 581

Pinellas to Sarasota: 634

Sarasota to Hillsborough: 1,020

Hillsborough to Sarasota: 1,017

Who's Winning Workers?

Hillsborough...48,550 gain

Sarasota...11,793 gain 

Who's Losing Workers?

Pasco...38,719

Manatee...13,007

Hernando...7,158

Pinellas...875

Polk...584 

Source: Tampa Bay Partnership

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