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Rallying for Riches

Regional economic development has been a longtime goal, but will it finally work?



Illustration by Jesse Zamjahn

SKYSCRAPERS SURROUND ERIC BERGLUND IN ATLANTA, BUT HE’S HOPING a video of beaches, bustling storefronts and building projects will pique interest in Southwest Florida. Gathered in a hotel ballroom in the city’s Buckhead financial and shopping district is an influential group of real estate professionals who hold the Certified Commercial Investment Member designation and serve as CCIM regional vice presidents.

For Berglund, president of the Southwest Florida Economic Development Alliance, the CCIM fall conference is a way to connect with dealmakers helping companies find their next headquarters, office locations and manufacturing sites. The CCIM’s 13,000-plus members in over 30 countries produce more than $200 billion a year in transactions.

It’s the first time Berglund’s alliance, founded in 2013, is a chairman sponsor for an industry conference. The $50,000 sponsorship gives the organization exposure to hundreds of U.S. and international commercial real estate professionals and also causes the CCIM chairman to pull Berglund up on the stage following a separate presentation about opportunities to invest in California.

“Think about the other west coast—Southwest Florida—when you are looking at opportunities to expand throughout the United States,” Berglund tells the crowd of about 100 CCIM members.

The Atlanta event is one of 17 trade expos and conferences he’s attended in the past year to represent the alliance and promote its five counties—Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Glades and Hendry. That’s up from 11 events in 2015 and three events in 2014.

The alliance has taken other concrete steps, including placing a regional property search tool and demographic information on its website, and holding regular meetings to encourage collaboration among economic development leaders, which its advocates believe will pay off by growing and diversifying the economy.

For years, there’s been talk about the need to market and promote the Southwest Florida region as a whole. While past efforts have fizzled, local leaders say it’s different this time. It’s going to work, they promise.

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Southwest Florida is playing catch-up as other regions in Florida and beyond have launched efforts that pool together often-limited county economic development resources with private investment to market their areas as a whole.

Companies and site consultants don’t confine their searches to county boundaries, so a regional approach is critical, says Tracy Whirls, executive director of the Glades County Economic Development Council. The demographics in particular have more weight when viewed regionally, such as that more than 1.25 million residents and more than 500,000 people in the workforce over the five counties.

“While ultimately, yes, you want that business in your community, a community still benefits if that business happens to locate next door,” says Berglund, who joined the alliance in 2015 and previously was president and CEO of the Upstate Colorado Economic Development.

Glen Salyer, Lee County’s assistant manager, who oversees economic development, says businesses draw a labor force from a fairly wide

area and many of the major assets here are regional, including Southwest Florida International Airport, the colleges and universities and even the cultural amenities.

“Together, they offer far more diversity than any single community could,” he says. “The assets of the entire region support business growth. Lee County is focused on helping businesses capitalize on those assets to expand and thrive.”

Our five-county area was a bit slow to the game, as the last region in Florida to form a regional alliance, says Jace Kentner, interim director of the Collier County Business & Economic Development Division.

Now, he says, historical infighting is at an all-time low and economic development leaders want to work well together.

“You have the right people in place. Everyone just realized that we’re stronger as a region than we are individually. As a whole, it made sense to work together,” says Kristi Bartlett, vice president, economic development for Partnership for Collier’s Future Economy, a subsidiary of the Greater Naples Chamber.

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Whirls, who has been in Glades County for 11 years, was involved in the previous regional effort, the Southwest Florida Economic Development Partnership. That initiative became bogged down with conflicts among the urban communities, she says. “It didn’t exactly take off well. The alliance effort seems to be going much better,” she says.

New leaders in Lee and Collier counties, as well as business executives who became founding members of the alliance, rekindled the effort three years ago. The alliance, Berglund says, is positioned by its founders to enhance, not duplicate, the efforts and services already provided by city and county economic development offices and councils.
Until the region works together, there is untapped potential, says Al Reynolds, vice president, sector leader, community development for Stantec in Naples, and a founding member of the alliance who was chair-elect in 2016. A 16-member board of directors governs the group.

Lee and Collier, as of the fall, were the only counties providing financial support to the $600,000 annual budget, about 40 percent of which comes from the counties and about 60 percent from the private sector. “We have requests into the other three. We hope to have all five counties participate financially at some level,” Berglund says.

The recession and Hertz’s move to Southwest Florida appear to be the catalysts for a stronger regional initiative. “We’re all in this together and nobody is going to bring a Hertz in by himself any more. Those days are over,” Kentner says.

Landing Hertz involved the state, Lee County Economic Development Office (led then by Jim Moore), the city of Bonita Springs and its chamber of commerce and the Bonita Springs Estero Economic Development Council. Former Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson believes the Hertz headquarters deal in Estero could serve as a roadmap for regional efforts.

For several months, Hertz viewed pieces of property in Bonita, to determine the best location. When it appeared that the property in Estero was a better fit, although Bonita Springs “wanted them bad,” Nelson said he knew Bonita would still benefit by new residents and workers, and the impact on housing, shops and restaurants.

“Being just north of Bonita is just the same as being in Bonita,” he thought. “That’s the way we looked at it.”

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The alliance’s founders—Lee County Horizon Council, FGCU and Partnership for Collier’s Future Economy—decided to be specific and targeted in its efforts, Reynolds says. They focused on how the alliance could be complementary to economic development activities at a local and state level and add something of value, such as the website with regional data and forging relationships with site selectors.

“We’ve really had no place that the world could learn about Southwest Florida and get high-quality data about our region,” Reynolds says.

Adds Berglund: “We are really focused with doing one-on-one meetings with site consultants and those decision makers to tell them about Southwest Florida.”

In addition, the founding investors were willing to make a three-year commitment, which Reynolds says showed they truly believed in the need for a regional entity. The fact that the alliance is still here, Reynolds admits, is a success in itself. Moving from a start-up to a functioning organization with a paid president is evidence that the alliance has the right mission and fundamentals, he says.
Now, it’s time for the next level of folks to invest, he adds. “We’ve got a lot more to offer the world when we can do that as a collective group,” says Reynolds. “We’re competing together.”

Berglund says about 20 projects have considered Southwest Florida because of the alliance’s efforts just since he joined in 2015; and he estimates about 53 prospects are still out there, all with potential. Oasis Senior Solutions’ announcement that it is moving from Maryland to Bonita Springs can be tied to the alliance’s work, Berglund says. Reynolds adds that economic development takes patience and investment in marketing, outreach and awareness.

“When you do it effectively, results will come,” he says. “We are starting to see the fruits of that effort.”

The Punta Gorda Airport and proposed Airglades Airport in Hendry County, as well as Americas Gateway Logistics Center on 700 acres in former sugar cane fields in Glades, are among projects providing space for companies to expand. Early stage and second-stage companies find entities such as the Naples Accelerator, the Culinary Incubator and the RocketLounge in Fort Myers to be helpful.

Back at the CCIM meeting in Atlanta, Berglund has about 10 minutes to showcase Southwest Florida. The video he shows boasts about Southwest Florida’s climate and recreational activities, high-profile businesses, transportation infrastructure, education and job growth. Also included are aerial shot of undeveloped land, featuring, chuckles a man at one of the tables, “lots of gators.”

At least Southwest Florida is now on the radar screen, Reynolds says, even if folks first think about gators.

“If you’re invisible, you’re never in the conversation,” Reynolds says. “We know that we are becoming part of the field of potential places that businesses are considering.”

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The alliance provides a way for the Cape Coral Economic Development Office to leverage its dollars spent on events and trade shows, such as by sharing a booth and even having some expenses cov- ered, says Dana Brunett, economic development manager of the Cape Coral Economic Development Office.

He’s already seen the merit of this regional alliance.

“I’d like to see it continue because I do think it brings value,” he says.

Cape Coral is in the middle of creating an economic development master plan, which Brunett says will be the guidebook for reaching the city’s 20 percent commercial tax base at build out. The commercial tax base has increased from 8 percent to 12 percent in the past couple of years, Brunett says.

Brunett, like other economic development directors, also recognizes that site selectors are region-focused first.

“Nowadays working with the site selectors, it’s hard to go to them as an individual city. They really prefer to work with regions as well,” he says. “That’s why I think it’s imminently important that we have a regional entity because everyone else does.”

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Here’s how two regions outside of Florida have collaborated to create jobs and economic investment:

OPPORTUNITY AUSTIN

This public-private partnership started its economic development effort in 2004.The initiative is divided up into five-year phases and is currently on its third one, called Opportunity Austin 3.0. The initiative has created 326,300 jobs with more than $17 billion added to the region’s payroll, says Mike Berman, senior vice president of communications and marketing for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

A record 64 companies announced in 2014 that they would relocate to the five-county region, which has 2 million residents, followed by another 53 com- panies in 2015. Opportunity Austin is already ahead of its goal for 2016, with 38 companies announcing plans to relo- cate (as of September), says Berman.

One key to progress has been that mutual respect has developed among the 16 community partners that have invested in Opportunity Austin, says Charisse Bodisch, senior vice president for the Austin Chamber. “...They’re in five-county region, which has 2 million residents, followed by another 53 companies in 2015. Opportunity Austin is already ahead of its goal for 2016, with 38 companies announcing plans to relocate (as of September), says Berman.

One key to progress has been that mutual respect has developed among the 16 community partners that have invested in Opportunity Austin, says Charisse Bodisch, senior vice president for the Austin Chamber. “...They’re in front of each other enough and they’ve gotten to know each other as individuals and build those relationships and that just helps build that trust all the way around,” says Bodisch.

UPSTATE SC ALLIANCE

The public- and private-funded economic development effort in the northwest region of South Carolina includes 10 counties. In the past 10 years, this regional effort has seen 50,889 jobs created and more than $15 billion in capital investments.

“I was a local economic developer... in our region, and I found out very quickly that it was difficult to market myself effectively domestically or internationally,” says John Lummus, president and CEO of the alliance.

Jiangnan Mold PlasticTechnology Corp., a Chinese automotive supplier, only took six months to move to the region from its initial meetings. In April 2016, the company announced its move to Spartanburg County, near the BMW US Factory, investing $45 million in the project, with a goal of creating 150 jobs in five years.

One of the keys to success is establish- ing structure for a regional economic development effort from the beginning to know how the processes are going to work, how leads will be distributed and who gets credit for it, says Lummus. GB 
 

—Lauren Pratt

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