What will we take away from 2008, other than more gray hair and a new yardstick for economic anxiety? Sinking under a real estate meltdown that began in 2007, we confronted ever-rising gas prices, a mountain of foreclosures and business closings, and then got broadsided by a Wall Street crisis that turned into global disaster.

Yes, the year’s top stories are grim, but we searched for—and found—some cheer on the horizon.

Sarasota-Manatee still has all the right stuff to prosper. Our beautiful region will continue to attract a generous share of baby boomers, many of them with the drive and desire to be entrepreneurs.

And while real estate and construction continue to suffer, some local developers got serious this year about building affordable housing for the people we want to live here: middle-class workers. Meanwhile the weak dollar encouraged growth in European tourism and companies that produce products for export.

So before we go bravely forward into 2009, let’s take one last look back at 2008.

HOT TOPICS

Everybody Talked About

The collapse of Wall Street. It led to federal bailouts, worldwide investor panic and talk of a deep global recession—or is it depression? Real estate investments had already tanked—now shrinking stock portfolios, both of retirees and workers, threatened consumer spending, charitable giving and future financial security for many in the region.

Whether attracting the Boston Red Sox to Sarasota would be an economic stimulus or taxpayer drain.

The effect of rising gas and utility prices on commuters and businesses.

The history-making presidential campaigns, with both a black man and a woman on the major party tickets, and the increase of Democratic voters and candidates in our once mainly Republican region.  

Residential foreclosures, which were happening next door, down the street or worst of all, at home.

Offshore oil drilling, which Congress voted to extend along coastal states, though they kept drilling away from Tampa Bay.

Restaurant and retail closings, those sad reminders of the grim economy.

An elected mayor in Sarasota, which was proposed for the third time as a way to achieve stronger leadership. A grassroots group collected signatures to place a new initiative on the ballot.


What’s Up                                                                              What’s Down

Gas Prices                                                                                SUV Sales

Home Foreclosures                                                                 Population Growth

Unemployment, Job Losses                                                      School Enrollment

Home and Condo Sales                                                            Median Home/Condo Prices

Sun Hydraulics Profits                                                   Local Banking Profits

Public Transportation Passenger Counts                                    Auto Trips

Office Vacancy Rates                                                               Office lease prices

Bankruptcies                                                                            Business Confidence 

                                                                         

                                                          


COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE SLOWDOWN

Commercial real estate follows rooftops, the saying goes, so no one was surprised when commercial construction stalled.

Established developers defaulted on loans because they could not get approved residential projects off the ground. Venice Developer Mike Miller was one of them. His $23 million Palms at Riviera Dunes condo project in Palmetto was foreclosed on by Regions Bank.

Other developers held on, waiting for the market to rebound. After demolishing the Sarasota Quay on U.S. 41, Patrick Kelly’s $1 billion Bayside project slowed to a standstill, and nearby condo residents demanded a cleanup of the unkempt construction site. Downtown Sarasota’s planned landmark mixed-use project,

Pineapple Square
, was granted an extension on groundbreaking by the city commission. The Bay Street Village redevelopment project in Osprey, also a Mike Miller ISN’T THIS HENRY RODRIGUEZ, TOO? project, remained vacant. Up in Manatee, the mixed-used, $22 million Palmetto Town Center was in limbo, as was downtown Bradenton’s Metro Marquee, another mixed-use development. Metro Marquee’s developer is still trying to bring a grocery store to the city. Meanwhile, Sarasota-Manatee’s overall office vacancy rates rose to 9 percent and Class A office vacancy for Sarasota reached a high of 17 percent.

But there were bright spots. Benderson Development’s University Town Center stayed alive and signed on Macy’s, Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus. Loeb Partners Realty, the owners of the Longboat Key Club, announced a five-year, $400 million expansion.

Hoteliers were bullish as tourism held steady in Sarasota-Manatee.  The downtown Hyatt Regency Sarasota proceeded with its $22 million renovation, and construction began on the $100 million Hyatt Siesta Key Beach resort, a 44-unit luxury fractional project. Finergy Development’s SRQ Innovation Green, a hotel and retail project on eight acres at the entrance to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, broke ground for its Hampton Hotel in July. The Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, filed preliminary plans to add 119 rooms, and Lion’s Gate Development Group, the developer of the $1 billion Proscenium, signed an agreement to bring a 225-room Waldorf-Astoria to the downtown Sarasota project for completion in 2011.

The Manatee County Commission approved Lakewood Centre, the buildout of Lakewood Ranch between S.R. 64 and S.R. 70, which would quadruple commercial space to more than 4 million square feet over the next 10 years. The commission also approved plans for developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to build 3,200 homes there. FedEx broke ground on a 123,000-square-foot sorting and distribution facility on

Buckeye Road
near Port Manatee. On Anna Maria Island, Ed Chiles announced a $20 million restoration of Anna Maria’s historic
Pine Avenue
commercial center.

ECONOMIC CONTRACTION AND EXPANSION

Early in the year, Wellcraft Marine, a boatbuilder with a 50-year history in the area, announced it would move operations out of state, citing “negative manufacturing economic conditions in Florida and the state's complete lack of interest in attempting to save these jobs.” The move was announced on the heels of Hi-Stat Manufacturing’s plant closing in late 2007.

At mid-year, Manatee County EDC’s business climate survey revealed that 50 percent of businesses believed their industries to be in worse shape than last year, and 41 percent reported negative growth. With local companies imperiled and very little relocation activity, both EDCs devoted most of their energy and resources to business retention.

But some manufacturers announced expansion plans during 2008, and a number local companies doing business overseas, such as Sun Hydraulics, posted growth in profits.

METI, a manufacturer of patient simulators, and L-3 Aviation Recorders, producers of cockpit voice and flight data recorders (black boxes) underlined their long-term commitment to Sarasota with plans to renovate and expand their facilities in Sarasota. Orbeco-Helliage, a Long Island-based manufacturer of water-testing instruments and kits, relocated to Manatee County, and Neostyle, a German-based designer and manufacturer of high-end eyeglass frames, went public after its quiet move to downtown Bradenton to set up its U.S. distribution headquarters. PPi Technologies expanded its food packaging manufacturing operations by adding a new facility and 20 employees. After laying off nearly 300 workers and restructuring, PGT Industries in Venice, manufacturer of impact-resistant windows and doors, introduced three new door and window products for commercial and residential markets.

GROWING OUR OWN

The concept of economic gardening (growing existing companies rather than attracting outside companies) captured more attention, and home-grown companies such as Internet advertising firm IntegraClick proved Sarasota-Manatee has a base of potential high-growth gazelles already. Both Tervis Tumblers and Medical Education Technologies reported rapid growth. Clockwork Home Services continued to acquire home service companies, extending its Benjamin Franklin Plumbing, One Hour Air Conditioning & Heating and Mister Sparky franchises to 555 territories by mid-year. Bradenton-based First Watch Restaurants, the largest privately held, daytime-only chain, with 76 restaurants, announced plans to sell regional franchises and expand across the country. Beacon Products and Sunovia Energy in Manatee boosted revenues through the development and production of clean energy products. Commercial real estate investment firm Meridian Development Group, known locally for turning around a vacant Winn Dixie warehouse in Sarasota, announced plans to grow its portfolio of bulk distribution, flex and low-rise office properties by 5 million square feet.

 MERGERS

Some businesses made gains through mergers. Tulsa, Okla.-based Manhattan Construction Group purchased Kraft Construction Company, builder of 1350 Main, Plaza at Five Points and the new Sarasota police station, to form one of the largest privately held construction companies serving Florida, with combined annual revenues of approximately $1.5 billion. Eric Mower & Associates acquired Sarasota-based Clarke Advertising & Public Relations, creating a multi-state agency with combined 2007 billings in excess of $170 million. Bradenton-based appliance and electronics retailer DeSears merged with Appliance World in Denver and Baillio's in New Mexico to compete against “big box” retailers.

Sarasota-based TV Net Media Group purchased La Voz Hispana, a 12-year-old magazine catered to a South American audience and revamped the publication, growing its pages and its advertisers by 300 percent within the first few months.

A PROPERTY TAX REVOLT

Every business, from the medical office to the marina to the family-operated motel, was slammed with increases in taxes and insurance. In January, voters approved Amendment 1, the Florida Legislature’s response to growing outrage over the state’s broken property tax system. The amendment increased the homestead exemption, added portability to the Save Our Homes’ 3 percent cap on assessment increases, and capped skyrocketing nonhomestead property assessments at 10 percent annually. Gov. Charlie Crist traveled the state to promote the amendment, which he said would jump-start the economy by boosting the residential real estate market.

But Amendment 1 was to be only the first step in reforming Florida’s tax system.  Many pinned their hopes on the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, a bipartisan, appointed commission that meets every 10 years to review Florida’s tax and funding systems. The commission produced Amendment 5, the “tax swap” amendment, which would have shifted $9 billion in public school funding from local property taxes to sales taxes and other revenues. Realtors, some lawmakers and Gov. Crist supported it, but a vast alliance of legislators, public school officials and businesses associations, fearing a return of the services tax and increased sales taxes all around, strongly opposed it. It made it onto the November ballot before it was struck down by the Florida Supreme Court for misleading language.

Declining state revenues forced the Florida Legislature to reduce its budget by $2 billion; it was expected to return for a special session to cut more. Local governments cut staff and budgets. And businesses and property owners continued to demand tax relief.

ECONOMIC STIMULUS PLANS

Sarasota County voters approved borrowing to fast track $300 million in road and infrastructure projects to create jobs and put companies to work. The financial crisis has slowed the county’s ability to issue bonds, so some of this work may be postponed. The Greater Sarasota Chamber launched its $2 million Sarasota Tomorrow campaign to improve the business climate, and the Sarasota EDC encouraged government and businesses to buy from local companies.

The Manatee County Commission sought legislative approval of a Port Manatee Encouragement Zone, which would waive local impact fees, extend the Foreign Trade Zone and accelerate permits to create a new, streamlined zoning classification for port-related land use. The effort was unsuccessful, but they plan to try again in 2009.

In Sarasota, a grassroots effort to lure the Boston Red Sox from Fort Myers became a groundswell and then a controversy, as the community debated possible stadium sites and the economic merits and drawbacks of investing $59 million in tax dollars in a sports entertainment venue. At press time, negotiations were stalled.

REAL ESTATE

Economists’ predictions that we were nearing bottom in early 2008 proved overly optimistic as homes and condos languished on the market, prices continued their slide and Sarasota-Bradenton posted record foreclosure rates.

With slow sales and a two- to three-year surplus of home and condominium inventory, real estate companies became creative, continuing the Time2Buy campaign in Sarasota County, mastering short sales and stepping up international marketing efforts. As homeowners lowered prices and waited, the median home price fell to $218,200 in August and median condo price to $220,000. At the end of August, Florida ranked second only to California in the country in luxury home foreclosures, with 1,008 million-dollar-plus homes in default.

BANKERS TIGHTEN UP

Local banking took a blow when First Priority Bank of Bradenton was closed by federal regulators and its assets auctioned. First Priority was the first bank to fail in Florida in four years.

Yet nearly every established local bank posted losses, and some hobbled along with percentages of nonperforming assets in the double digits. 

Meanwhile, the tight credit market and real estate devaluation crippled small companies, and some owners relied on their homes and office buildings for loan collateral. Even SBA-guaranteed loans decreased in Manatee County by 31 percent and in Sarasota County by 45 percent during the first half of the year. Without access to credit, many businesses couldn’t expand or adapt during the slowdown.

MOM AND POPS CLOSE DOORS

Downtown Sarasota gathering place Metro Coffee & Wine was one of the first mom-and-pop spots to close in February.  The Sarasota Hyatt’s Boathouse Restaurant closed to make way for the hotel’s renovation, and Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street anchors, Morton’s Gourmet Market and Fred’s restaurant, seemed to open and close in a blink of an eye.

But the challenging retail landscape did not deter national chains from Sarasota-Manatee. Kohl’s Department Store opened on

University Parkway
. Forever 21 opened at
Westfield Sarasota Square
after the mall completed its $50 million renovation and expansion. Hyde Park Prime Steakhouse opened on the corner of
Lemon Avenue
and
State Street
in downtown Sarasota. Ada’s Natural Foods moved forward with plans to occupy the space formerly occupied by Morton’s in Lakewood Ranch.

As fewer local businesses opened, what little activity there was seemed all the more notable. In downtown Sarasota, Theresa Guest and Robert Seth-Ward, former owners of Chic Chateaux and Churchill's Furniture in Sarasota, established the10,000-square-foot Sarasota Antique Mall on Lemon Avenue. Ceviche restaurant opened in the renovated Sarasota Times building and quickly became a hot spot. The Seidensticker family took over the former Fred’s Restaurant on

Osprey Avenue
and opened Libby’s Café + Bar. And before season even began, a new wine shop in Lakewood Ranch, WineStyles, celebrated a grand opening.

A CHANGE ELECTION

As presidential candidates spoke of change and maverick reform, local officeholders faced formidable challenges. State and county incumbents who had been re-elected without opposition fought to retain their seats. A newly resurgent Democratic party in Sarasota County fielded 22 candidates for office, from the Congressional District 13 seat down to hospital and charter review board. As the election neared, new voter registrations flooded the Sarasota Supervisor of Elections offices at a rate of up to 1,000 per day, and the percentage of registered Democrats rose slightly. In Manatee County, the pendulum swung on the county commission board as voters ousted two incumbent commissioners and replaced them with pro-business candidates.

WINNERS

COBA (Sarasota’s Coalition of Business Associations), CONA (Sarasota’s Coalition of Neighborhood Associations) and voters, after both pro-growth and slow-growth advocates met to hammer out their disagreements over a proposal to require a public referendum on changes to the urban service boundary. Their historic agreement averted an expensive, public battle and another polarizing debate over growth—and voters approved it.

Clean energy, as FPL dedicated its 250-kilowatt solar array of 1,200 solar photovoltaic panels, the largest in the state, at Rothenbach Park east of I-75.

Sun Hydraulics Corporation, producer of high-performance hydraulic cartridge valves and manifolds for worldwide industrial and mobile markets, was named a “winner” by BusinessWeek for earning more than half its $167 million in 2007 sales outside the United States. The firm continued to rise in 2008, posting a 20 percent sales increase and a 40 percent net income increase of in the first half of the year, due in large part to European and Asian sales.

Neal Communities, for the most visible foray into the affordable housing market. Neal unveiled and quickly sold Café Collection homes priced in the $130s in its Forest Creek community near Parrish.

Commuters, after Zep Construction of Fort Myers rebuilt three lanes of I-75 in Manatee County in three weeks, ahead of a six-week deadline, following a fuel tanker crash and explosion in June that destroyed part of the I-75 bridge over U.S. 301.

LOSERS

Tomato farmers, after a nationwide outbreak of a rare strain of salmonella in April led grocers and restaurants to pull tomatoes from their shelves. Manatee tomato growers watched their crops, and their season’s revenues, wither on the vine. The culprit was later found to most likely be peppers grown in Mexico, and the FDA ban on shipping tomatoes from Sarasota and Manatee was lifted in mid-June. Growers complained to Congress in July that the slow-moving agency had harmed their businesses and consumer confidence.

Workers, as Sarasota-Manatee’s unemployment rate, recently one of the lowest in the nation, rose to more than 7 percent. While construction and professional services were hit hardest, job insecurity spread across sectors, and city and county governments, Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Bradenton Herald all announced staff cuts.

Small business borrowers, who lost access to credit as the value of their real estate collateral evaporated. Many relied on credit cards or postponed expansion plans.

Sales tax reformers, led by former state Senate President John McKay, who were prepared to battle on behalf of Amendment 5 in an effort close sales tax loopholes. The amendment was removed from the ballot after a court challenge.

Hockey hopefuls, after Sal Diaz-Verson, president of the proposed DVA Arena Hockey Facility in Lakewood Ranch, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to stave off a foreclosure sale and buy time to raise capital for the stalled project. The bankruptcy was tossed out and the project was set for foreclosure.

Sarasota Reading Festival and Sarasota Arts Day fans, as both of the popular (and free) outdoor festivals were cancelled because of economic conditions and diminishing corporate sponsorships. 

Smokers, as Sarasota County Government announced a tobacco-free hiring policy for all new job applicants, who would be required to acknowledge they had not used tobacco products for the preceding 12 months.

WHO’S IN

Debra Jacobs, as president and CEO of the Patterson Foundation, which grew overnight to one of Sarasota County’s largest foundations after receiving a $200 million-plus bequest from the estate of Dorothy Clarke Patterson this year. The foundation begins official operations in January, but has already made its first challenge grant of $100,000 to the Red Cross National Disaster Relief Fund.

Dr. Sarah Pappas, who didn’t remain idle after retiring from her job as head of Manatee Community College but instead replaced Debra Jacobs as president of the Selby Foundation.

Tony Souza, promoted to executive director of Habitat for Humanity. Souza had left his position as head of Sarasota’s Downtown Partnership to join Habitat’s fundraising effort in 2007.  He was selected from 50 applicants after a national search.

Sheryl Palmer, as CEO at Taylor Morrison, the Bradenton home builder created by the merger of Taylor Woodrow and Morrison Homes.

Teresa Dick, as CEO of Bradenton-based Administrative Concepts.

Lana Cain Krauter, as president of Beall’s Department Stores Inc.

New Manatee County Commissioners Larry Bustle and John Chappie, who ousted incumbents who were perceived as less favorable to business and growth.



Brian Kennelly, new president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty.



John Bednerik, as executive of the 750-member Englewood-Cape Haze Area Chamber of Commerce..

Sheila Belknap, as president and chief executive officer of the Van Wezel Foundation, replacing Rodger DeRose, who resigned to become president and CEO of The Henry H. Kessler Foundation.

Michael Worthington, as president and CEO of Florida Bank in Sarasota.

WHO’S OUT

John Swart, president of Lakewood Ranch Commercial Realty, who retired after 12 years on the job and after being credited for turning empty territory into 4 million square feet of commercial space—2.5 million office, 800,000 retail and 700,000 light industrial.

Sarasota County Property Appraiser Jim Todora, after business and party leaders recruited another Republican to run against him, and charged that his property appraisal process overvalued property after values had plummeted.

Martine Collier, who abruptly resigned from her post as executive director of the Sarasota County Arts Council at the end of a board meeting in July, taking even the chairman by surprise. 

Jody Kielbasa, who announced he would leave the Sarasota Film Festival, which has been reported to be suffering financial difficulties.

Jay Brady, who parted ways with the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange.

ACCOLADES AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS

The Sarasota-Bradenton metro area was ranked in the top 5 in the nation in terms of entrepreneurship measured by self-employment by the Kauffman Foundation.

CNNMoney.com named Sarasota as one of the top 100 places to live and launch.

Bradenton ranked fifth on a list of top 10 great places for working artists to live by Art Calendar, the industry's foremost business publication for visual artists.

Sarasota-Bradenton-Venice was picked as the 46th-best city for relocating families on a list compiled by Worldwide ERC, a Washington, D.C.-based relocation specialty firm.

Sarasota-Bradenton was ranked second in the “2007 Florida Cybercities” report released by the AeA comparing high-tech wages to pay in other types of jobs, and 7th with regard to overall employment.

U.S. News & World Report’s 2009 edition of “America’s Best Colleges” rated New College fifth among public liberal arts college, and Forbes.com rated New College third in the nation among all public colleges and universities. Kiplinger's Personal Finance ranked New College fifth on a list of the top 100 best values among public colleges and universities.

Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) in Bradenton graduated its first class of 136 doctors of osteopathic medicine (D.O.) students.

The Roskamp Institute of Sarasota launched a three-year Neuroscience Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders research doctorate program, becoming the first Florida-based research facility to host a laboratory-based research program of its magnitude.


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