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Keeping Score

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2008

>>During a visit to Sarasota in November, Gov. Charlie Crist said exactly what this column said during much of last year: Ethanol production in Florida makes sense only if we are to use our own sugarcane.

Problem is, Crist recognized, that Florida’s big sugar companies aren’t interested in participating, since their sugar production is protected and subsidized.

Meanwhile, Crist’s predecessor, Jeb Bush, has been pushing a slightly different ethanol agenda: As one of the founders of the Interamerican Ethanol Commission, he has been advocating lowering or eliminating duties on ethanol imports, including from Brazil.

But it’s Charlie 1, Jeb 0 so far. We won’t get massive ethanol imports—at least directly from Brazil—anytime soon. The United States and European Union trade representatives have been trying to block a Brazilian initiative before the World Trade Organization to include ethanol into a group of “environmental products” that would enjoy low or no import duties.

>>Last year, I wrote about how the small Florida airport of Melbourne was able to land nonstop flights by holiday airline LTU from Germany. I pitched the effort as a model for the bigger Sarasota-Bradenton “International” Airport.

Well, it looks like Melbourne’s plans have hit a rough patch, to say the least. As of late November, German tour operator M-Touristik AG was still offering Melbourne flights on its Web site. But a few days after once-a-week flights from Berlin were supposed to start, on Nov. 3 the airport announced M-Touristik canceled its Melbourne plans for the 2007-08 season.

The context is one of declining foreign visits. International travel to the United States was down 17 percent through September 2007, and 33 percent at Tampa International Airport, according to the Travel Industry Association.

Melbourne airport officials suggest the Feds were to blame for the cancellation, saying they were unable to get the airport’s customs office staffed in time for this season. Maybe blaming the government looks a tad too convenient, given the rough times for international tourism here. But indeed, our Reichs—pardon, the Department of Homeland Security—don’t exactly have a track record of responsiveness to tourism concerns.

Rick Webster, vice president of government affairs of the Travel Industry Association, for instance, told a tourism industry crowd in Pinellas County in November that visa restrictions and border enforcement were the main culprits for the decline in foreign visits.

My calls to U.S. Customs & Border Protection weren’t returned before deadline of this column.

Meanwhile, M-Touristik’s pullback has city of Melbourne officials in a bind vis-à-vis taxpayers, since their airport already paid $100,000 to the tour operator for advertising purposes. Worse, the Germans, saying they have done their part and contracted an airline, reportedly claim Melbourne owes them another $100,000.

Should Melbourne’s troubles scare away SRQ officials from seeking international nonstop flights? No way. Just make sure to factor in our Homeland bureaucracy. And, failure or not, the airport’s and M-Touristik’s efforts put Melbourne on the map with German tourists and airlines. Consider the $100,000 a long-term investment. Even without actual flights, Melbourne now has a head start over Sarasota-Bradenton.

>>The low-fare air battle between Spirit and JetBlue over the fast-growing immigrant market in Florida continues. Following an array of announcements of new destinations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale International Airport, JetBlue is expanding the fight to Orlando International Airport.

Starting March 6, the no-frills airline is offering daily nonstop service from Orlando to the Dominican Republic on small Embraer jets. JetBlue is already offering flights to Puerto Rico from Orlando.

Food for thought among SRQ officials: In Sarasota-Bradenton, one of every 10 residents hails from Mexico or Central America.

>>After asking for and winning an extension to develop a condo project at Gulfstream and U.S. 41, it doesn’t sound like Kolter Communities will be building any time soon. Kolter’s insistence on yet another cookie-cutter condo tower at one of Sarasota's prime locations doesn’t make a whole lot of business sense—if they really want to build, that is.

The condo market is in free fall. "Both buyers and sellers are searching for signs of the market's bottom," Miami-based Condo Vultures recently said about current market conditions.

Selling cookie-cutter condos like commodities to flippers is “out”; designing buildings with distinctive features for actual residents is the way to go, according to Jack McCabe of Deerfield Beach-based McCabe Research & Consulting. Forget high-security fortresses with post-Stalinist design and four floors of parking. Think ground-floor retail, pedestrian amenities, environmental features, transit and public accessibility.

Maybe Venezuela’s socialist economy isn’t doing so bad after all. Two years after closing its Caracas office, Enterprise Florida, the Orlando-based public-private business booster organization, opened a new office in Bogotá, Colombia to concentrate on the “Andean region.”

No surprise there; although torn by civil war, Colombia’s government is one of Washington’s closest allies in the region. But the new office expressly serves Venezuela as well. And while Colombia has shown respectable trade growth with Florida since 2004, Venezuela’s import and export growth with our state has been outright sensational. Just in 2004-05, Florida goods exchanges with Venezuela rose 41.6 percent, consolidating Venezuela’s spot as the Sunshine State’s No. 4 trade partner, according to Enterprise Florida.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.

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