Five Questions with Sharon Hillstrom

Bradenton Area Development Corp. President & CEO Sharon Hillstrom answers questions about EDC programs and progress.

By Chelsey Lucas June 1, 2014

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Sharon Hillstrom, President and CEO, Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.

The Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp. is building on a successful two years, with about a dozen companies relocating or expanding here and adding an estimated 1,200 new jobs in the next five years. The EDC also helped secure three World Cup pentathlon competitions and the World Rowing Championships at Benderson Park, enhancing the area’s reputation as a sports performance destination.

Sharon Hillstrom took over the organization in late 2011 after serving as interim director. Soon thereafter, the EDC became independent from the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, changed its name from the Manatee County Economic Development Corp., and underwent its own relocation from downtown Bradenton to Lakewood Ranch.

Q. What has been the EDC’s biggest accomplishment in the last two years?

Having Air Products, the world’s largest supplier of hydrogen and helium, make a $50-million capital investment across the street from Port Manatee. The lead came from Enterprise Florida, which told us the company, which manufactures heat exchangers about two-thirds the size of a football field, wanted the straightest possible route to a seaport. There were economic incentives, but the decision came down to location and having skilled welders. Manatee Technical Institute developed a training program for Air Products’ employees. And because we beat out Texas, our area is now on the radar screen for other site consultants.

Q. Why is “Bradenton Area” a stronger brand?

Through research with site selection consultants across the country—our target audience—we found the Bradenton name has more recognition than Manatee. Tropicana and IMG are in Bradenton; the Pirates play in Bradenton. We wanted to capitalize on that visibility. To help us rebrand, we hired an advertising firm that specializes in economic development.

Q. How do you view your role in working with Sarasota?

Sarasota and Manatee are regionally oriented. We do compete, but we work together when it makes sense. When the rowing facility sought state funding, we worked together to present the sports performance sector to the governor. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Sarasota EDC that we do not try to recruit each other’s companies.

Q. What impact will IMG’s expansion have on Bradenton?

The potential is significant, particularly in research and development of technologies and therapies related to sports performance. IMG’s grand plan aligns well with our goals to enhance the sports performance industry.

Q. What are your big plans for the future?

Because things are moving so quickly, we are moving from a five-year to a three-year strategic plan. We have potential in terms of international trade so we are working with existing companies to get them to consider exporting products internationally. We’ve transitioned into a marketing organization, and we will continue to cultivate relationships with site consultants in selling this area.

We will also be tackling workforce issues working with the schools to make sure education is aligned with jobs that will be here in the future. We will continue to move to diversify the economy so we have some insulation, should one of our sectors, like the residential housing market during the recession, take a hit. It’s a lot like balancing a stock portfolio.

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