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The presidential election is finally over, and although it defined much of what we talked about this year, business never stopped. We went back over the headlines of 2012 to find the people, companies, trends and happenings that touched our local market. Here are the stories that mattered to us most.

 

TOP STORY

Real estate rebound

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Thanks to record low interest rates (3.4 percent on average), high demand for rentals and investor interest, we’ve seen home sales, prices and housing starts go way up in Sarasota and Manatee, and inventory has dropped to a 10-year low. That adds up to our best year for real estate since the 2007 collapse, and officially makes us a seller’s market again. While the news isn’t all rosy (commercial vacancy remains high throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties), a handful of ambitious new projects could make the picture even brighter. Benderson Development broke ground on its long-awaited Mall at University Town Center and opened a big new North Port shopping center. Neal Communities unveiled its new 1,999-home master-planned community, Grand Palm, in Venice. And the huge real estate investment firms Blackstone Group and Two Harbors Investment Corp. have been scooping up distressed properties in Sarasota and Manatee.

MOST CONFUSING NUMBER

Unemployment rate

8.3%

The recession may have ended back in 2010, but try telling that to job hunters. The Southwest Florida jobless number has dropped significantly from its September 2010 peak of 12.7 percent, but at 8.3 percent, it’s still painfully high, and, as many experts point out, that drop is due in part to discouraged folks who have simply given up looking for work. And what kinds of jobs are being created? An energized tourist sector is driving growth, but those service-oriented jobs don’t fit the profile of the high-wage, high-tech jobs that the region would rather attract.

WINNING SECTORS

Tourism, sports, culture

The entire region saw terrific tourism numbers this year, with big gains over last year in bed tax and hotel occupancy rates. Summer traffic was a particular surprise, leading some business owners to declare our on/off season calendar all but dead. In the sports world, Bradenton’s IMG Academy is moving full steam ahead with its plan to redevelop 221 acres of farmland to rebrand itself as a university-like destination, while minor league baseball attendance hit record highs this year around the state. More than 106,000 fans turned out for the Orioles in Sarasota, and more than 82,000 went to see the Pirates in Bradenton. Realize Bradenton brought major crowds to its city’s revamped downtown Riverwalk and launched the ambitious Bradenton Blues Festival. And a recently released Americans for the Arts survey pegged the total direct economic activity from the arts in Sarasota County at $180 million. That’s a lot of dough.

BEST MISSES

Superstorm Sandy, Tropical Storm Debby and Hurricane Isaac

As the Northeast continues to reel from the wreckage caused by Superstorm Sandy (estimated to climb to $50 billion in damages), our lucky storm streak continued this year. Sandy left Florida alone, and the two systems that came closest, Tropical Storm Debby and Hurricane Isaac, were mostly inconveniences for businesses and residents of the keys. Indeed, the Sarasota County Commission caught flack for declaring a state of emergency over Debby. We don’t agree; better safe than sorry.

BIGGEST SCANDAL

Manatee County schools

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When you hire new employees, it’s a good rule of thumb to make sure you can afford to pay them. Manatee County Superintendent Tim McGonegal learned that lesson the hard way this year, when a series of accounting errors had the school district overspending by $8 million. In addition to those extra teachers, the district forgot to account for hundreds of thousands of dollars in high school textbooks, and miscalculated teacher salaries and benefits. McGonegal resigned just days after the news went public, leaving the school district scrambling to come up with a bailout plan. An out-of-town law firm is now trying to figure out what the heck happened.

BIGGEST FLASH MOBS

New stores

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Wild stampedes greeted the opening of both Costco and Trader Joe’s in Sarasota, with cars jamming parking lots (and nearby drainage ditches) for weeks as customers hit up the Sarasota Square mega-wholesaler and the midtown yuppie grocery store. Walmart even got into the action, winning approval to take over the abandoned Ringling Boulevard Publix (which generated a fair share of neighborhood opposition, to little avail) and building a new grocery-only outlet in place of the old North Trail Winn-Dixie, helping neighborhood folks who had suffered without a grocery store for years.

BIGGEST MEDIA MOVE

The New York Times Company sells Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Oops. That’s what Halifax Media executives must have thought when a small change to their corporate website—adding the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to the company’s list of newspapers—was noticed and posted by the media gossip blog Romenesko. The news that The New York Times Company was selling the paper became official just a few days later. Publisher Diane McFarlin left to become dean of the University of Florida College of Journalism. Executive editor Mike Connelly left, too. Then the editorial board quit endorsing political candidates. Do the new equity owners value Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism? We’ll see.

NASTIEST FEUD

Carlos Beruff vs. Lars Hafner

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State College of Florida President Lars Hafner, an ambitious change agent who ruffled feathers soon after he took the job in 2008, resigned this fall after a year of pressure and public humiliation from a board of trustees led by Manatee County builder Carlos Beruff, who enjoys the backing of Gov. Rick Scott. Scott appointed six new members to the nine-person panel, and tasked them to run the college more like a business. Resigning along with Hafner were two supportive trustees; two days later, Jack Crocker, SCF’s vice president of academic quality and success and interim SCF president, followed suit. The Hafner era is over; now it’s up to the board of trustees to heal the wound and find a new leader for the region’s largest college.

MOST DRAMATIC MAKEOVER

County Commissions

Both the Sarasota and Manatee county commissions are going to look very different next year. In Sarasota County, term-limited Jon Thaxton—an advocate for the environment and an opponent of sprawl—is being replaced by Venice attorney Charles Hines, who got support early on from other commissioners and a who’s-who of local developers. Hines defeated Englewood Tea Party maverick Randy McLendon. In Manatee County, Benderson Development’s Betsy Benac unseated 22-year incumbent Joe McClash, a target of developers, in a brutal battle. Look for big changes to growth management rules in coming years.

FRIENDLIEST DIVORCE

Manatee Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation

A three-year reorganization culminated in January when the Manatee Chamber of Commerce spun off its economic development council into a new nonprofit: the Manatee Economic Development Corporation. Tasked with aggressively retaining Manatee County businesses and recruiting new ones, the EDC has been instrumental in spreading the word that Manatee County is open for business, leaving the Chamber free to build a strong pro-business environment.

BEST QUOTE

“I’m so glad to be in Saratoga.”

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— Donald Trump, accepting the Republican Party of Sarasota County’s Statesman of the Year award before a sold-out dinner crowd at The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota. (The event netted the local GOP about $100,000, and Trump—who came on his own dime during Hurricane Isaac—added another $15,000 of his own.)

BLESSING IN DISGUISE

Digital Domain’s rebuff of Sarasota County

Sarasota County pulled out all the stops in an attempt to lure film production studio Digital Domain back in 2009, offering a $12.3 million incentive package on top of 20 free acres and $20 million in state money allocated by state Sen. Mike Bennett. When the company passed on these offers and decided to open up shop in Port St. Lucie, critics complained we’d let a big fish slip away. Things change. This September, Digital Domain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, laying off its 300 Florida employees and leaving the state on the hook for all those big bucks. If local leaders ever have reason to celebrate not bringing in a big new business, this is it.

BIGGEST FIRE SALE

Used parking meters

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The logical question after the City of Sarasota ended its chaotic experiment with paid downtown parking: What to do with all those meters? Many remain on the streets, embarrassing monuments to the City Commission’s fickle decision-making. But perhaps not for long, because the company that sold them to the city in the first place has made Sarasota an offer: $1,000 per meter, paid once the company resells them. That works out to one-tenth what the city originally paid for the meters.

BEST FREE PUBLICITY

Nik Wallenda

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Sarasota’s Nik Wallenda did supreme justice to his family’s long history of daredevil stunts when he tiptoed across a tightrope stretched high over Niagara Falls in June. Media reports pegged the audience for the event, which was televised live around the nation, at 13 million. That’s a lot of eyeballs, and a lot of free publicity, for his hometown. We’re just glad he made it across safely.

CLOSEST CALL

Health Management Associates

Health Management Associates—the Naples-based corporation that owns 71 hospitals nationwide, including Venice Regional Medical Center—was seriously considering relocating its Sarasota County business office, potentially killing 148 jobs. But an aggressive push by the Sarasota County Economic Development Corporation and $400,000 in government incentives convinced HMA to reconsider. The company not only chose to preserve its current workforce, but has pledged to hire 217 new workers over the next two years.

MOST EXCITING EXPANSION

Port Manatee

Business leaders are salivating over the juicy opportunity presented by the massive expansion of the Panama Canal. The project, scheduled to be completed in 2014, is expected to bring boom times to Florida’s ports, and Port Manatee is growing quickly to meet demand. The port completed an ambitious dredging operation last year, and announced plans to expand that same berth by 2013. And in September, the federal government awarded the port $2.5 million to help it better connect to nearby rail lines. The port, which touts an annual $2.3 billion economic impact, has become Florida’s fourth-largest. And as the deepwater port nearest the Panama Canal, odds are it will only become a bigger economic player in the years to come.

BEST PUBLIC PROJECT

Bradenton Riverwalk

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Downtown Bradenton was dramatically transformed this year with the completion of the $6.2 million revamp of the city’s Manatee riverfront. Features of the new Riverwalk include a skate park, butterfly garden, dock, fishing pier, volleyball courts and an amphitheater whose naming rights were purchased by phosphate mining giant Mosaic (a decision that didn’t come without criticism from environmental groups). Movie screenings, art shows and a big-deal blues festival scheduled for this month all helped build the buzz.

MOST AMBITIOUS PLAN

USF Sarasota-Manatee

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USF officials said they will “transform Sarasota and Manatee counties” by turning the current school—a nonresidential college that caters to nontraditional students—into a full-fledged four-year university, complete with dorms and, of course, coffee shops and pizza kiosks. The blueprint calls for the school to double its enrollment to 10,000 and to build a $25 million academic center. While boasts that the project will revitalize the North Trail may sound hollow (how many times have we heard that before?), the undertaking would be a shot in the arm for a neighborhood that sure could use one.

GROUNDED

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AirTran leaves SRQ The budget airline AirTran killed its Sarasota Bradenton International Airport routes this year, knocking out 32 percent of SRQ traffic. Other airlines moved quickly to fill the void. Delta added new nonstop flights to New York City, eliminating the dastardly Atlanta layover, as did JetBlue. United added a daily nonstop flight to Chicago. The federal government is helping bail out the airport, too, offering $500,000 in incentives to help SRQ attract new airlines.

TALENT MAGNET

Community foundations

Both the Community Foundation of Sarasota County and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation snagged top-tier talent, bringing in Laura Spencer and Jon Thaxton, respectively. Spencer, the Community Foundation’s new CFO, is best known for running Tervis from 2006 to 2010. Thaxton, meanwhile, had one rollercoaster of a year. First, a court ruling on term limits forced him off the county commission, and then a run for supervisor of elections ended with a humiliating defeat to incumbent Kathy Dent, all before he landed a position as director of community investment for the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

 

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Top to Bottom: Tom Esselman; Patrick Redmond; Molly Demeulenaere Tim Dutton

GOOD-BYE

Marj Baldwin. The Sarasota Tiger Bay Club founder passed away in July, leaving a legacy as a feisty, take-no-prisoners master of ceremonies.

Nathan Benderson. The developer titan died in April at the age of 94. He founded the company that bears his name more than six decades ago and grew it into one of the nation’s largest.

Al Hogle. Longboat Key’s police chief was killed suddenly during a motorcycle accident in North Carolina in May. Two thousand mourners showed up to pay respects.

 

TRANSITIONS

Mark Becker. The general manager of Sarasota’s Hyatt Regency stocked up on scarves and down jackets when he accepted the G.M. position at a Minneapolis Hyatt.

Bob Bartolotta. Sarasota’s former city manager stepped down amid accusations of computer snooping, public record destruction and phone tapping. The FDLE found no wrongdoing.

Donna Hayes. Cited for careless driving after failing to report a traffic accident, Manatee County Commissioner Hayes abruptly axed her plans to run for re-election.

Tim Dutton. SCOPE executive director Dutton resigned after running the organization since its 2001 inception.

Molly Demeulenaere. The young and dynamic G.WIZ executive director took her talent to Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry.

Randy Welker. After just a year on the job, the man tasked with revving up Sarasota’s economic engine decided to split, saying his wife couldn’t find a job here. Oh, the irony.

Sarasota Hardware & Paint. The closing of this 78-year-old Main Street shop was a blow to everyone who dreams of finding everything he needs in downtown Sarasota.

Circle Books. Bookstores are going belly-up every other day, and St. Armands’ beloved independent Circle Books fell victim to the trend.

Wolf Camera. Sarasota’s old-school camera and film store was shuttered when its parent company filed for bankruptcy.

 

HELLO

Brad Jencks. The new general manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota hit the ground running, overhauling the restaurant and lounge.

Tom Esselman. The Institute for the Ages’ upbeat first leader comes to us from the Hallmark greeting card company.

Tom Barwin. The Sarasota City Commission picked Barwin as the man to replace outgoing city manager Bob Bartolotta.

Patrick Redmond. Tervis’s new chief executive will be tasked with keeping up the company’s phenomenal growth.

Donal O’Shea. It’ll be a tough job maintaining New College’s hot streak in the national academic rankings when Florida university budgets have been diminished, but most professors and students think mathematician O’Shea is up to the job.

Mel Interiano. Interiano brings a reputation for innovation to his new role as CEO of Evolucia Inc. (formerly Sunovia Energy Techologies), the Sarasota LED lighting company.

Kurt Stringfellow. With a soft Southern drawl and tough business backbone, Stringfellow left an executive position at a Georgia YMCA to lead the Sarasota Family YMCA, where he’ll have to raise recession-ravaged revenues and cut expenses to keep the Y’s many social programs thriving.

Randy Reid. Hired as Sarasota County administrator late last year, Reid became a force in 2012, earning a reputation as a straight shooter working hard to restore the county’s reputation after financial scandal led to his predecessor’s resignation.

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