The year 2004 can be characterized by one word: growth. From Palmetto to North Port, newcomers, their wealth and their needs are transforming the region at lightning speed. More than 700,000 people live in Sarasota and Manatee today, with 1,000-plus new arrivals every month. This growth is driving up property values, jump-starting new communities, expanding business and job opportunities and changing the pace and quality of life in Southwest Florida.

But even in a year filled with so much energy and expansion, some stories and subjects blew away all contenders; and despite all the prosperity, some players managed to lose money-and face. Quick, before it all vanishes into the vast, forgotten void of business years past, let's take a moment to look back on the economic newsmakers, notables, heroes and villains of 2004.

SECTION 1

BIG STORIES

The Hurricanes, of Course.

(286 words) ART: see Oct issue, Bill Speer photos

Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne spun all contenders out of the way to rank No. 1 on our 2004 list of the region's top business stories. In six short weeks, starting Aug. 13, these four hurricanes damaged more than one of every five Florida homes, destroyed thousands of businesses and blew estimated insured losses to over $18 billion. The personal and business costs have been staggering, leading economists and politicians to forecast a short-term decline in economic growth in Florida until at least the first quarter of 2005. Tourism and agriculture have been particularly hard hit, and it's too soon to predict if late-summer visitors and convention planners will continue to book rooms and meeting space at pre-storm levels during peak hurricane season.

But hurricanes can blow business into a region, too. While some small businesses were fatally struck, others, such as those selling hurricane shutters and windows, pool screens, signs and construction supplies, are prospering. An infusion of state and federal money-President George Bush requested $13 billion in federal relief funds for storm-affected areas-will help fuel recovery.

Some residents will relocate; already, Charlotte schools are reporting they have close to 1,000 kids fewer than before the storms. And many elderly residents without energy or resources to rebuild have also left the county. But while it might be tempting to predict that the storms have shown Floridians how vulnerable we are, structures built to the latest hurricane standards survived. Wanna bet that it will take more than an unprecedented hurricane season to deter people who want a piece of Florida sun and sand, even if insurance rates rise?

Downtown Construction Craze

(186 words) ART: see Sept issue, p. 38

A year ago, many downtown high rises were just paper plans, but there's no escaping the new look of downtown Sarasota now.

At last count, 33 projects with an estimated value of $1.6 billion were either being built, approved or about to be approved for downtown Sarasota, and this doesn't even count the projects on North Trail or Golden Gate Point. Most are luxury high-rises expected to add up to 1,200 residences and tens of thousands of square feet of office/retail space, making us look and feel more like a real city. The excitement-and ambivalence-are palpable. Some residents alarmed by the change formed Save Our Sarasota to warn pro-growth advocates about crowded roads, concrete canyons and the loss of trees and small-town charm.

On the other side, several downtown property owners were shocked this fall once they finally took a good, hard look at the controversial "Duanyized" downtown master plan, which limits how high and what they can build.

Of course, it's anybody's guess whether all this growth will bring live bodies to live and shop downtown, since it's hard to tell if speculators or card-carrying residents snapped up all those pre-construction contracts.

Manatee County Goes Boom

(179 words) (ART: see March issue, Reviving the Sandpile photos)

One of Florida's fastest-growing counties, Manatee County continued to boom in 2004 with more than $1 billion worth of construction under way on both sides of the river, including first-ever upscale condominiums on the formerly blighted Bradenton "sandpile" and multimillion-dollar high-rise condominiums at Palmetto's Riviera Dunes Resort & Yacht Club. Officials from Bradenton and Palmetto have rolled out a joint marketing effort called Manatee Riverwalk to attract future development.

How big is the growth? The city of Palmetto, not so long ago known more for its mobile home parks and tomato packing plants, had a remarkable 4,193 projects in planning or development as of October. Most are residential, including two recently annexed parcels of land that will hold 1,200 and 1,500 homes respectively. "It's nutty," says Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency director Tanya Lukowiak.

And the end is not in sight; despite slightly rising interest rates and a slowdown in construction materials due to the unprecedented hurricane season, economist Hank Fishkind estimates 4,017 housing starts for Manatee County in 2005, down only marginally from the 2004 level.

South County Discovered

175 words

Affordable housing has been a magnet for development in south Sarasota County, especially in North Port, where the median price of a single-family house is a relatively inexpensive $140,000. Bob Tunis, the city's economic development manager, says North Port experienced its biggest year of growth yet: a 14 percent jump to 36,000 residents, making it one the state's fastest-growing cities. It's one of the youngest in Southwest Florida, too, with a median age of 40. With growth comes increased political clout; 2004 saw fighting between Sarasota County and North Port officials over annexations and tax dollars. But, even for Tunis, it's time to curtail the boasting about "impressive growth" and concentrate on "smart" growth and quality of life instead.

Venice is changing as well. The eastern portion of Venice Avenue-once home to a church, a few strip malls, and fields, now boasts a Publix flanked by a gas station, restaurant and bank, and manicured low-rise condominiums cheek to jowl along the once-quiet road. Further south in Englewood, a county-created Community Redevelopment Area and Tax Increment Financing District have breathed new life and much-needed dollars into downtown's historic Dearborn Street.

2050 AT LAST

154 words

After two years and endless wrangling over its eventual scope and environmental consequences, the Florida Department of Community Affairs finally approved Sarasota County's 2050 Plan in August.

The plan is the culmination of efforts dating back to 1972, when the county first adopted its Policies for Growth to encourage self-sufficient land development. Although citizens' groups lauded its goals, developers argued against the plan's stringent rules; and environmental critics bitterly complained it would allow too much future development.

Regardless, now that 2050 is a go, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is already planning the first of the clustered, master-planned villages described in the final order. The plan promises to provide affordable housing for median income families, preserve environmental systems, streamline infrastructure planning, and save water and energy. More than anything, it hopes to avoid the unplanned urban sprawl blighting so many of Florida's growing cities.

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SECTION 2

WATER COOLER TALK

A TAXING DISCUSSION

ART: some sort of generic photo of school, teacher's apple with money sign

The Sarasota County school tax referendum is resurfacing as various groups gear up for another fight over whether our public schools really need more money. Remember 2002? After a well-organized campaign by the Citizens for Better Schools and popular superintendent Wilma Hamilton, Sarasota County voters passed the referendum (after voting it down in 2000), adding $99,721,439 to the budget as of mid-October. This tax is set to expire by the end of the 2006 school year. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune's Rod Thompson opened the debate early this year with his columns lambasting the way referendum dollars have been used and asking why our kids need so much money to learn.

PUBLIC ACCESS

ART: beach shots

Lately, even businesspeople seem concerned about the dwindling number of spaces where ordinary people can access the water in Southwest Florida. According to Albert Joerger of the Sarasota Conservation Foundation, only 412 vacant waterfront lots remain in the county. Also dwindling are the number of private waterfront businesses, such as restaurants, bars and marinas, which cater to the public. The Flying Bridge, The Summerhouse and Longboat's Holiday Inn have all been purchased for conversion into luxury condominiums. On Anna Maria Island, business owners are lobbying legislators to lower property taxes on mom-and-pop beach businesses to prevent the conversion to condos. Government stresses "highest and best use" of property, says Joerger, but does that best use always mean luxury, high-density projects? Lots of tourism-related businesses, officials and residents would say no.

LAKEWOOD RANCH LOOMS LARGE

ART: see crunching numbers in nov. several lifestyle shots

Is Lakewood Ranch threatening downtowns' viability? You'd think that from the way some businesspeople and politicians are voicing concern. (Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston says he's relieved he got the money to renovate the judicial center in downtown Bradenton because it ensures that the seat of Manatee County will remain there. And a retail consultant told a crowd of hundreds at a Sarasota business meeting that downtown Sarasota had better act fast if it wants those national brand retailers; otherwise, he warned, they'll head east of the Interstate.)

Yes, it's true that Lakewood Ranch has been a phenomenal success. This year, such regional businesses as John Cannon Homes moved their headquarters there; and the soon-to-be-built Main Street at Lakewood Ranch has attracted the Sarasota Film Society, several restaurants, and a day spa. But John Swart, president of Lakewood Ranch Realty Company, Inc., says it's "nonsense" to imagine Lakewood Ranch realtors lurking in the shadows, "canvassing" the downtowns for tenants. "Most of our traffic is walk-in," he says. Also, vacancy rates are lower in downtown Sarasota than Lakewood Ranch, he says, so the office market is actually stronger downtown. When tenants end up in Lakewood Ranch it's often because there's no affordable space to rent downtown.

And if John Tylee, the exiting executive director of Sarasota's Downtown Partnership, is right, city boosters shouldn't be too concerned about losing cachet. "Funky," diverse collections of people, architecture and public spaces are what give cities an international reputation, he says. In terms of being a real city, Lakewood Ranch is just too straight.

TOGA, TOGA, TOGA

Young professionals are buzzing about the idea of creating a university district along North Trail to leverage the youthful, hip consumers of four institutions: New College of Florida, USF Sarasota-Manatee, Ringling School of Art and Design, and Florida State University. Imagine coffee shops, clubs, bookstores and more mixed-used, mid- and high-rise developments with affordable housing. The young 'uns have a challenge. North Trail property owners think their old '50s motels are worth a bundle, and surrounding neighborhoods aren't keen to back up to multistory condos or apartments.

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SECTION 3

WINNERS AND LOSERS

Winners

USF Sarasota-Manatee, for winning the legal battle and $22.5 million in state funds to build a new campus on the Crosley Estate.

PGT CEO Randy White and his employees, after White quickly and compassionately responded to Hurricane Charley victims by buying generators, food, water, gasoline, toys and stoves, and leasing a campground where his employees with damaged homes could live after Hurricane Charley.

Long-beleaguered Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, for finally snagging a $1.5-million federal transportation grant to secure AirTran's discount service to Baltimore and Atlanta. (Jan 2004 issue for photos)

Tourism, for a banner year, in which both Manatee and Sarasota counties reported record-breaking numbers for tourist tax collections.

Tallevast residents, for finally convincing the federal government to take a look at their soil and water, contaminated by American Beryllium Co., after decades of neglect.

Whole Foods/Casto Lifestyle Properties, New York Times Company (Sarasota Herald-Tribune) and Courthouse Centre, for managing to get a total of $4.4 million in tax increment financing (over protests from lots of residents and businesspeople) from the city of Sarasota for their new downtown developments. (we have renderings of Courthouse Centre in ads)

Big banks, for getting even more bulked up through mergers. And small-bank owners who were dedicated to local, old-fashioned service.until the price got right.

Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, for staying in the black and capturing the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce's "Arts Organization of the Year" award. (we have photos of Van Wezel)

New College of Florida, for being named the nation's No. 1 value in public higher education by The Princeton Review.

LOSERS

Environmentalists, for the Piney Point phosphate spill, losing the battle to preserve the fragile ecosystem at the Crosley Estate rather than expand USF's campus, and losing the battle over 2050.

Commuters, for the traffic jams and increased drive time as Sarasota Manatee becomes a regional workplace. (see August issue, p. 34 for illustrations or May issue, p. 38)

Pregnant women, for the loss of OB-GYNs and local hospital obstetric wards because of rising malpractice insurance rates.

Mobile home residents, for facing four hurricanes and the realization that the land their homes are on is ripe for more expensive residential developments.

Working families, because local incomes are not keeping up with cost of living and housing.

Farmers, for also falling victim to the storms. (see may issue, p. 35)

Longboat Key hotels and motels, for crumbling beneath the bulldozer to make way for luxury condominiums

.and Longboat retail and restaurants, for losing the tourists who used to stay in the hotels and eat at local restaurants.

.and eventually, realtors, who will miss the tourists who eventually bought second homes here.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital, for a series of medical errors that made local headlines.

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SECTION 4

IN

FPL workers, for working nonstop days and weeks to restore our power.

Cone of probability, once an arcane term known only to meteorologists and now part of every Southwest Floridian's vocabulary.

Palmetto, which proved it had cachet beyond tomatoes and Mexican restaurants when its new Evolve Wellness Studio & Spa was named the 2004 Day Spa of the Year by Luxury Spafinder magazine.

Arenas, which became a hot topic after Salvador Diaz-Verson, owner of DVA Sports, convinced Manatee County government to fast-track the hockey/entertainment arena he's developing at Lakewood Ranch, derailing hopes for a brand-new arena in Sarasota at Robarts.

Sarasota County government, which has been reorganized under county administrator Jim Ley, who's pushing government to operate more like business.

Greater Sarasota County Chamber of Commerce, which increased membership 16 percent, from 1,900 to more than 2,200, under the new leadership of president Steve Queior.

Republicans, who win again, despite Forum 2004, a Sarasota-based not-for-profit discussion group that packed ballrooms when it brought in big-league national authors for a liberal love fest.

Healthy downtown eating, introduced when Whole Foods opened its upscale organic grocery in downtown Sarasota.

WiFi and Hot Spots, a wireless Internet connection coming soon to downtown Sarasota, allowing laptop users to surf and sip coffee in Five Points Park.

OUT

Tropicana, Bradenton's orange juice maker, lost 300 executives when PepsiCo relocated corporate headquarters to Chicago.

Wynnton Group Inc., the troubled Georgia-based developer, sold its Renaissance condominium projects to American Capital Partners.

Wilma Hamilton, former Sarasota School superintendent, moved to Illinois where she married Bill Delp, Sarasota's former associate superintendent.

Jigg's Landing and Linger Lodge, the landmark 75-year-old Manatee fishing camp with public boat docks, sold for $500,000 to a speculator who immediately put it back on the market for $758,000; RV resort and restaurant Linger Lodge, a Manatee County fixture with dead rattlesnakes and an alligator pinned to the wall, is listed at $4.5 million.

Golf courses, longtime public courses such as Village Green and Palma Sola in Bradenton, have been sold to residential developers.

Manatee County farmland, such as the McClure property, the Harrison Ranch and the Harlee Ranch, for thousands of homes.

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SECTION 5

UP IN THE AIR

Sarasota's downtown conference center. The idea of building a conference center languished for months until the Ritz-Carlton, Hyatt and Quay folks jump-started the issue late this year. At press time their hopes for a conference center on the Quay site looked dashed, but conference center crusader Tim Clarke insists there are plenty more ideas and locations to debate.

Midnight Pass. Sarasota County commissioners spent $637,000 this past January on the controversial issue of whether Midnight Pass, closed for more than 20 years, should be reopened. The conclusion? The pass can be opened and maintained for 20 years for $22 million. The county is applying for permits and then has to nail down the federal, state and local funding sources. But getting permission and funds won't be easy; residents who don't want to spend the money to fight Mother Nature will probably go to court.

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SECTION 6

BUZZ WORDS

The 2004 lexicon gets local.

Exit strategy: Your plan to unload those million-dollar downtown condos you bought during the 2004 boom.

No-go zones: Sarasota's Main Street and Bradenton's 75th Street by King Middle School; construction made them the roads from hell.

Regime change: SunTrust's Ray Sandhagen leaves for Orlando; Schroeder-Manatee's CEO John Clarke, Sarasota Memorial CEO G. Duncan Finlay, Doctor's Hospital CEO Lindell Orr and Sarasota Chamber senior vice president Bill Couch retire; Sarasota chamber chair Tim Clarke was finally allowed to step down; Jonathan Bruce, Manatee County Commissioner since 1996, decided not to run again; Sarasota Downtown Partnership director John Tylee leaves for Canada; and RBC Bank president Tramm Hudson is handing over the reins of the Sarasota County Republican Party after six years (but hints that U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris' seat beckons when she runs for the U.S. Senate).

Hope VI: verb, to point the finger at someone else, as in "The congresswoman Hope VI'd criticism of the Indiana terrorist gaffe and the AARP flap."

Wardrobe malfunction: What Harvey Vengroff wears on any given day (hey, every town needs a free spirit).

Flip-flop: That Southgate re-do you lost money on.

Breck Girl: The whole country pointed to John Edwards, but Sarasota's Christine Jennings redefined the term.

Free speech zone: Wherever Longboat Key Observer publisher and Libertarian provocateur Matt Walsh is-as long as he's doing all the talking.

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