Wow. I don’t recognize my once-backwater hometown anymore.

Thanks to a variety of players in the Sarasota-Manatee area who have been putting their brainpower, connections and budgets behind the search for new markets beyond our borders, a lot of new doors have been opening over the past few months.

The biggest—a $36-million, barn-size gate, representing additional tourism income—is about to be pushed open by Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ). Michael Walley, the airport’s development director, told me in April that SRQ is “as close as ever” to landing transatlantic flights by German charter carrier Condor Flugdienst in Sarasota. Condor is planning to start year-round, twice-a-week Frankfurt-Sarasota flights in May 2011, according to Walley.

Frankfurt is a central European hub. Already German businesses are the No. 1 foreign direct investors in the Tampa Bay area, with 64 subsidiaries here, according to the Tampa Bay Partnership. Add to that the Tampa Bay subsidiaries of companies from countries within easy reach of Frankfurt—40 operations from France, 20 from Switzerland, 19 from the Netherlands and five from Belgium—and you begin to grasp the importance of this nonstop connection. Tampa International Airport doesn’t have one. So now, the southern part of the Bay Area has the chance to become a trendsetter instead of an afterthought.

Eric Basinger lives that every day.

“It’s unbelievable; it’s a much easier presentation to make when you have a direct flight,” says the head of the Manatee County Economic Development Council about the sales pitches he makes to German companies.

In particular, Basinger has been busy attending fairs and giving his presentation to medical equipment manufacturers throughout Germany.

Basinger is joining a crop of increasingly seasoned international players in the local scene, such as Canadian-born Walley, Port Manatee’s Steve Tyndal, Rep. Vern Buchanan, who has been using his office to help raise the area’s profile abroad and—last but not least—a fast-rising number of local entrepreneurs who already do business beyond our borders.

That’s, by the way, the part no one has mentioned yet regarding the Europe connection. It’s not just about shuttling people and businesses here; it’s also about us going there and selling our stuff. One of the global Top 10 cargo hubs, the Frankfurt airport, is located smack in the middle of Germany. More than 35 million people—45 percent of Germany’s total population—live within 125 miles of the airport. Frankfurt is continental Europe’s most prominent financial center, second to London only in that part of the world. The Frankfurt area is also home to the biggest European clusters of chemical and automotive industries. We’re not just talking about Europe’s Fortune 500. The economic bedrock of that area is made up of tens of thousands of small and midsize companies you can partner with.

I won’t hide the downside of doing business with foreigners from you. When you cross borders, you are dealing with two sets of regulations and bureaucracies. You’re mired in twice the amount of red tape. This means you should expect the unexpected—times two.

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport recently got a reminder of that fact. In this case, it was Fortress U.S.A. that slammed the door shut. Even before Condor agreed, SRQ CEO Rick Piccolo sat down with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) people in Tampa to hash out how to get enough inspectors for the 52 weeks a year, twice a week Condor flights. SRQ wanted one full-time officer and overtime arrangements for eight hours a week for additional immigration and customs officers.

The Tampa CBP port director told Piccolo he would need an additional seven officers—and that they don’t have them in Tampa. SRQ, he was told, must operate with Tampa agreement. SRQ has had such a user fee arrangement with Tampa already, under which it essentially borrows one customs and immigration officer, at a cost of about $175,000 a year. Times seven, the practice becomes an unaffordable $1.2 million for an airport with just two international flights per week.

Piccolo’s answer is simple.

“We can’t spend a million dollars,” he says, suggesting that the Tampa CBP office has enough staffers already, and SRQ should be able to work out overtime for their services.

The easiest solution to the quandary, suggests Chicago-based airport consultant Henry Ristic, would be for the airline to first land at another U.S. airport such as Fort Lauderdale, just for customs and immigration clearance. But in that case, the chief operations officer at Condor would probably scrap the entire deal with SRQ.

So Piccolo chose the political route. He talked to Congressman Buchanan, as well as staffers of Florida U.S. senators Bill Nelson and George LeMieux, who in turn jointly petitioned CBP in Washington to make an overtime arrangement with Tampa possible.

Just about everybody, including consultants, thinks the snag will be removed. Remember—SRQ is not at the mercy of competing Tampa International Airport. It’s at the mercy of the CBP office in Tampa, which reports to the Transportation Security Administration, which in turn responds to political pressure, such as from Florida Congresspeople. This is an opportunity for the Tampa CBP office to tell Washington they need more staffers.

What if the Condor deal doesn’t come through? The airport “won’t break up its tents,” says Piccolo, meaning the airport will continue to court foreign airlines.

Walley and SRQ have had a presence at nearly all major European tourism fairs north of the Alps this year. And in addition to the airlines in the Netherlands, United Kingdom and Scandinavia, Walley has also had contacts with airlines from Mexico and Central America.

But the biggest target is Canada.

“We’re looking at the Canadian market as the 51st state,” he says. SRQ would like to expand the seasonal Air Canada service from Toronto year-round. Walley is also looking at Montreal and the Atlantic provinces as possible source markets.

Sooner or later, though, we will need these additional customs and immigration officers, and the U.S. government will have to respond to the demand.

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