I confess that when my alarm clock went off one Friday morning last fall and I remembered that I had signed up for the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County’s annual industry tour, I considered calling in sick. I was stressing about the pile of work I’d left on my desk the night before—I couldn’t possibly afford to take a half day off to tour manufacturing plants! Plus, at that hour of the morning, the idea of standing around in cavernous warehouses filled with big machines sounded dreadful. Remember those awful field trips in middle school?
I’m so glad my better judgment and, let’s face it, my guilty conscience, made me honor the commitment. It was one of the most interesting—and productive—mornings I’ve spent in a long time.
Forty-five businesspeople, including bankers, commercial realtors and public officials, met in the shady parking lot of the EDC on Cattlemen Road, where we were plied with coffee and doughnuts before heading off in the charter bus. We toured United Natural Foods, the world’s largest wholesale distributor of natural and organic foods, which has just opened a warehouse in Sarasota and is shipping food across Florida, parts of the southern United States and the Caribbean; Crane Environmental of Venice, which manufactures reverse osmosis systems that can fit under your kitchen sink and purifies saltwater for luxury resorts and companies in 83 countries; and Gemesis, the cultured diamond manufacturer, which is doubling the size of its plant to satisfy the world’s hunger, especially in places like India and China, for diamonds.
Each company was fascinating, and my snarky middle-school attitude vanished as I watched how the company’s goods were made and shipped. The real point of the road show was to show us we have companies in this region that produce tangible products, pay average or above-average wages and are “value-added,” meaning they sell out of the region, and so bring in new dollars.
This is significant, especially as most of us are experiencing the fallout from the collapse of the real estate and construction industries. The companies on the EDC tour have not been affected by the slump in home sales. They produce goods and services that consumers and businesses still want and need. And they are doing it in manicured industrial settings with minimal noise, traffic and pollution. Manufacturing is often a maligned industry, but this tour convinced me and many of my companions that it provides some of the economic diversity our region desperately needs.