Our area’s traditional economic development model—bringing in lots of people and selling them stuff—is past its prime, and elected officials and businesspeople are waking up to that fact. Instead of gambling that the stream of new American residents and visitors will start flowing again, some people here are beginning to look to Latin America.

About 626 miles west of Sarasota and Manatee (about the same distance as Atlanta or New Orleans) is the gorgeous colonial-era Mexican city of Mérida, home to 750,000 residents and located near the tip of the Yucatan peninsula that juts out into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Thanks to a group of locals with links to Mexico, such as Sarasota real estate agent Javier Curiel, members of the Gulf Coast Latin Chamber of Commerce, and a Sarasota mayor who is fluent in Spanish and takes Latin America seriously, the City of Sarasota is about to get into a sister city relationship with the city that happens to be the capital of the Mexican state closest to Florida. If you think that sister city relationships are the domain of retired high school teachers and year-round hobby travelers, think again.

An exploratory meeting at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota in June

with a delegation from Mérida, led by the tourism minister of the state of Yucatan, gave a first taste of what’s possible.

• Tourism: There are opportunities both ways. Laid-back Mérida’s colonial charm is outdone only by that of Havana in the Caribbean. The nearby Mayan ruins of Chichén Itza and Uxmal are major attractions. Plus, Cancún and its beaches are just a comfortable one-and-a-half hour drive away. While we head to Mérida, Mexican tourists could head here: The middle and upper class Yucatecos frequently travel to the United States. Orlando and its theme parks are an important destination, and this region is well-located to take advantage of the tourists.

Michael Walley, the development director of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, told Juan Martín Pacheco, Yucatan’s tourism minister, that more than 53,000 passengers between Tampa and SRQ flew on U.S. airlines to Mexico last year. More than 32,500 were flying to Cancún, which is near Mérida.

Heading in the other direction, a Mexican startup airline is planning to offer flights from Mérida to several U.S. destinations, including a yet-to-be-determined airport in Florida. The biggest hurdle for the startup, according to Pacheco, is finding regional commuter-size aircraft. I’m sure our airport wants that business.

What could also help an air link is that Congress is likely to vote this summer on a bill that would lift the Cuba travel ban. Cuban-Americans are traveling to Cuba in fast-rising numbers. Mérida and Cancún can serve as an alternative route to the island. The international airport of Mérida already offers both Miami and Havana flights.

A triangular relationship between Florida, Yucatan and Cuba is also the best bet for Port Manatee or the Port of Tampa to host cruise ships or car ferries that may go to Yucatan. Remember the Yucatan Express five years ago? For one season, you and your car could travel overnight from Tampa to the Port of Progreso, the deepwater port near Mérida. Once the political gridlock between Washington and Havana is undone, a fast ferry service between the three countries would make eminent sense.

• Industry: Beyond traditional textile products, such as hammocks and guayabera shirts, Southeast Mexico’s fast-paced tourism construction of the past 20 years has spun off companies that produce and export construction material and furniture. The tourism minister pitched a local company that makes and sells furniture to hotels throughout Mexico and the Caribbean. Check out Marbol S.A. — marbol.com.mx. Maybe local furniture manufacturers, retailers and distributors or hotel owners should get in touch with them. Don’t think just about buying. Think about supplying or partnering.

• Construction: After a one-year slowdown, tourism and commercial construction is picking up again in Southeast Mexico. This should raise interest here among struggling construction, engineering and architecture firms. Venice’s PGT, which was almost torn apart by the construction slump in the Southeast U.S., manufactures wind-resistant windows that are as needed in Yucatan as they are here.

• Water: Yucatan has a history of water scarcity. The minister’s ears perked up when I told him about local companies with water expertise such as JCI Jones Chemical, Absolute Water Management Ecowater Systems, Crane Environmental, Siemens Water Technologies, Severn-Trent Avatar Utility Services and Progressive Water Resources. One-on-one meetings of Florida water companies with Yucatan, Mérida and Cancún water utility officials should be part of the agenda at the next meeting.

• Education: USF Sarasota-Manatee and New College officials have already hashed out details with an administrator from state university Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán (UADY) about sending U.S. students to Mérida. UADY’s strengths, by the way, are its medical faculty and the business school.

Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and of CubaStandard.com a website featuring real-time news about the Cuban economy, and hosts the Florida-Caribe show on WSLR 96.5 LP FM community radio in Sarasota. He can be reached at [email protected]

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