July 9, 2012

Lessons from the Economy's Front Line: Don't stop trying

Mark Huey  /  Herald-Tribune

Sometimes it takes a crisis to sort out priorities and crystallize a community's vision on how to move forward.

Take Sarasota County, for instance, where residents and business owners enjoyed the heady days of the real estate boom. Then came the bust, when Sarasota and Manatee counties lost more than 40,000 jobs, many related to construction and real estate.

We are not the first community to face such economic trials, and we won't be the last.

As we reassess what we want our economy to be and how to diversify and create good jobs, it's instructive to look at communities that have weathered similar storms.

I saw a compelling example on a recent fact-finding visit to Charleston, S.C., where naval facilities drastically down-sized, erasing some 22,000 jobs in a three-county region. Charleston is similar in many ways to Sarasota County, in terms of size, regional workforce, and a robust tourism sector.

"We were in crisis in 1993-94 and weren't sure what to do," said David Ginn, president and chief executive officer of the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, the public-private partnership coordinating the region's economic development strategy.

"Business leaders and county governments rallied, funding an aggressive campaign to focus on and recruit port-related manufacturing businesses. Over five years, the effort resulted in more than 100 businesses bringing jobs to the region," Ginn said.

The sense of crisis has ebbed with the influx of jobs, but the community has kept looking ahead. Business, government and education came together last year to create and fund a comprehensive, regional economic development strategy. Twenty-four different entities have assumed various tasks in the plan, and a regional "alignment" team helps the participants stay on task.

One aspect of the Charleston area strategy includes growing an entrepreneurial software development industry.

Not unlike Sarasota County, Charleston was starting basically from scratch, with just a handful of tech firms in early 2001. And this is where it gets really interesting: instead of throwing up their hands and saying, "we'll never be anything but a tourist economy," the community took a different tack.

In 2001, the City of Charleston established the Charleston Digital Corridor, an organization funded and staffed by local government to facilitate the development and growth of software companies in the region. It also runs a number of successful initiatives related to the software industry.

Nate DaPore's company is one of its success stories. DaPore had previously helped grow a successful tech business from the ground up in Charleston. In 2009, through the city's incubator program, he launched PeopleMatter, which has since secured three rounds of venture capital.

"Growing a software business in what I call 'Silicon Harbor' is not without challenges," says DaPore, whose company provides a human resource platform for service industries.

"The talent pool can be shallow and some technical expertise may be lacking."

But the Digital Corridor has created initiatives to fill those gaps.

The point is that Charleston didn't give up, and its effort is paying off. Launched in 2009, the incubator program now has two facilities. It has graduated 43 companies that have created 160 jobs with more than $10 million in annual, local payroll, according to Charleston Digital Corridor director Ernest Andrade.

In Sarasota County, as we work to diversify our economy and avoid boom-bust cycles, we can learn a great deal from communities like Charleston.

I'm not saying we should copy Charleston's vision or tactics; we have different assets.

Of all the lessons a region like Charleston can teach us, foremost in my view is this: As we envision a different kind of business makeup to compete in the new economy, we need to believe that we can get there from here.

Yes, Sarasota County is a resort and retirement community. To say that's all we will ever be is to abdicate our future to chance and pessimism. If we can envision it, we can be it.

Just look at Charleston.

Contact Mark Huey, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, at [mhuey@ edcsarasotacounty.com][2]. EDC is the public/private partnership leading economic diversification efforts by working with community and regional partners.

[2]: mailto:mhuey@ edcsarasotacounty.com