The One That Got Away

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2009

When you read “What People Earn” in this issue, you’ll see that we remain a low-wage region compared to the rest of Florida and the nation. No surprise there. Sarasota and Manatee economic development officials have been trying to attract higher-wage industries here for decades. That’s why it was such a painful disappointment when Digital Domain—a Hollywood digital production studio that had created the special effects for Titanic and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button—appeared at press time to have chosen St. Lucie County over Sarasota to launch an independent studio with the potential to bring in up to 1,000 jobs with annual wages between $55,000 to $65,000 a year.

How did we let them get away? With Ringling College of Art and Design, one of the top producers of computer animation graduates in the country located here, our arts reputation, our quality of life and the $32 million incentive package we put together and offered them, we seemed a perfect fit. Some local pundits have suggested that county officials were so distracted attracting a major league baseball team here for spring training that they let the big fish swim away. Local officials can’t talk about the details because of a confidentiality clause with the company, but Sen. Mike Bennett had a characteristically blunt reaction: “We should never have missed it. We should have gotten them.”

Maybe. A company’s choice to locate can be complicated, and in this case, John Textor, a co-chairman of Digital Domain, lives on Jupiter Island on the east coast of Florida, south of St. Lucie, reason enough to choose the east coast.

But Bennett thinks Sarasota County didn’t move fast enough to seal the deal. Once he called the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development and got an overnight commitment to put $20 million in the budget to get the company to come here, he says, locals should have found a way to quickly approve the rest of the $32 million the company wanted. “The problem is the ability of economic development people to commit fast enough to lock people in,” he says. “We must give them a package to work with, something in their toolbox so we can say you’ve got the ability to use this piece, maybe a bonding authority up to $10 million.”

Kathy Baylis, the CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, says that sounds good on the surface. “I don’t know an economic development official who wouldn’t want more authority, but it has to be weighed against the public benefit, and I’m not an elected official,” she says. Is there more we should be doing as a community when we get word that a big company wants to move here? I’d like to hear your ideas. Send them to me at [email protected]

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