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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Thursday, Nov. 29, 2007 11 years ago

Coffee Talk

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Businesses fight back: We're not bad: The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce is out to prove that businesses, both big ones and small ones, from developers to diamond sellers, aren't the enemy of the good life on the Gulf Coast.Judge advocates secrecy pact: The Spanish government got another step closer to getting long-awaited details of the estimated $500 million in sunken treasure salvaged by Tampa-based deep-sea explorers thisWestshore projects slow down and stop: South West Shore Boulevard has some of the last large tracts of waterfront land in South Tampa available for redevelopment.Company seeks motivation in new name: An entrepreneur's two-year quest to stop a sales slide and focus on a new direction has led to one of the riskiest decisions a company could make: A name change.ECONOMIC SNAPSHOT

Coffee Talk

+ Businesses fight back: We're not bad

The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce is out to prove that businesses, both big ones and small ones, from developers to diamond sellers, aren't the enemy of the good life on the Gulf Coast.

This is no kindergarten-like show and tell: The chamber plans on raising $1.85 million over five years to finance this fight - and it has already brought in close to $1 million. Some of the area's biggest companies are contributing $20,000 a year, including Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developers behind Lakewood Ranch.

A campaign kickoff is scheduled for Dec. 4 at 4:30 p.m. at the Sarasota Hyatt in downtown Sarasota.

"It's going to be a big and bold initiative," says John Saputo, president of Lakewood Ranch-based Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, the Sarasota-Manatee area's biggest Anheuser-Busch distributor. Saputo is a co-chair of the campaign, called Sarasota Tomorrow. "Lots of businesses have never told their story like this."

The story, according to chamber executives and members, is that businesses do a lot of good by simply being a thriving business, from employing people to selling things and building stuff to paying taxes. But in recent years, there seems to be a perception percolating in some parts of the community that a good business is somehow bad for the community.

Coffee Talk likes the concept of a group coming together to support and promote business interests, but one question lingers: Isn't this what a chamber of commerce should be doing anyway?

Chamber President Steve Queior says while that's true to a point, the Sarasota Tomorrow campaign is shooting for something bigger than networking lunches and breakfast chats. Turning around a community's misconceptions, Queior says, takes a lot of effort, time, and to be sure, money, and that can't be covered from chamber dues alone.

The campaign leaders have spent the past few months pitching other business folks for financial support, a task several say has been much easier than they initially thought - proving how important it is. Rex Jensen, president and chief executive of SMR and a campaign co-chair with Saputo, tells Coffee Talk that recruiting other businesses "has been one of those things where people are saying, 'where do I sign up?' rather than trying to drag people kicking and screaming into something they don't want to do."

Bob Messick, an attorney with Sarasota firm Icard, Merrill and the campaign's operations chair, says the focus of the program is to be collaborative, not confrontational, and to ultimately produce long-lasting change in how people think about businesses.

"The perception of the campaign's need has grown in the first six months," Messick says. "The recent election results have done nothing but galvanize the business community."

Messick, whose law firm pledged $50,000 over five years to the campaign, is referring to the super majority governing proposal approved by Sarasota County voters Nov. 6.

The Sarasota Tomorrow program is bigger and more encompassing than one election day vote that goes against business interests, Queior says. The campaign has four main objectives, covering topics such as business climate, infrastructure and roads, regional partnerships and general business development. The objectives are then broken down into a series of action plans to be carried out over the five years of the program.

+ Judge advocates

secrecy pact

The Spanish government got another step closer to getting long-awaited details of the estimated $500 million in sunken treasure salvaged by Tampa-based deep-sea explorers this year.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo, during a hearing in federal court, urged attorneys for both sides to hammer out a confidentiality agreement that would allow Odyssey Marine Exploration to disclose details about the shipwreck and the treasure to Spanish officials, while keeping the information out of the public eye.

Spain has filed claims in federal court in Tampa, contending that it is entitled to the treasure if it or the sunken ship belonged to Spain, or if the treasure was removed from Spain's territorial waters.

Tampa-based Odyssey flew the 17 tons of Colonial-era silver coins and other artifacts back to the United States in May. It has refused to disclose the exact Atlantic Ocean location and suspected identity of the wreck or even what kind of coins were salvaged.

The publicly traded company says the secrecy is necessary to ensure the security of the wreck site and to squelch wild speculation about the value of the booty that could affect its stock price.

Odyssey has said repeatedly that the find was outside the territorial waters of any nation, and a document contained in the court file indicates the treasure was found about 200 miles west of Gibraltar, a British territory at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Spanish government and its Washington-based attorney, James Goold, have become increasingly rankled with Odyssey's refusal to be more forthcoming about the shipwreck. Spanish officials twice detained Odyssey vessels leaving Gibraltar to search for clues.

The offer of disclosure with an attached confidentiality agreement has been on the table for some time, but the details couldn't be worked out.

It may be difficult to develop the agreement because of questions about how sanctions would be levied by a federal court in the United States if the pact was violated by Spanish officials.

Pizzo told Odyssey officials that although the agreement may protect the details of the wreck site, they may have to "bite the bullet" when it comes to other information about the treasure possibly getting out.

+ Westshore projects

slow down and stop

South West Shore Boulevard has some of the last large tracts of waterfront land in South Tampa available for redevelopment. City officials have said that the area will become a new gateway connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg via the Gandy Bridge.

But it is clear that the housing slowdown is impacting major Tampa Bay developments just as it has further south.

Two years ago, when developers proposed the new projects, buyers from all over the world stepped forward with deposits. But when the market changed, many of those buyers canceled their contracts. As a result, some developers have halted construction. Some, who got started after the market turned, couldn't secure enough contracts to get financing and never started building. Other developers are hanging on to the land they purchased and waiting for the market to improve.

Developers of Casa Bella, a 13-acre site slated for 250 condos, sold 98 and decided this summer to return buyers' $6.5 million in deposits and change direction.

Plans are now to operate Casa Bella as a rental community and finish building the development. When the market improves in two to five years, the units may be sold as condos.

South of Gandy Boulevard is the Westshore Yacht Club. It's further along than any of the other developments under way on West Shore, but the company is not starting construction on any more homes until it sells the rest of the completed ones.

WCI Communities, the developer building the yacht club, said this month that it is scaling back some of its Tampa Bay-area projects until there's improvement in the real estate market.

The project is on 74 acres and initially included plans for 539 homes.

One of the three planned towers is complete, and about 60 percent of the single-family homes and town homes are complete.

The finished condo tower has 80 units, 30 of which have not sold.

The company is now concentrating on selling those homes, some at a reduced price. The other two towers are on hold until most of the existing inventory is sold.

At West Shore and Gandy Boulevard, the 54-acre proposed New Port Tampa Bay is on hold and the land is up for sale.

This month, the Tampa-based developer, EcoGroup, said it is halting plans to build condos and a marina on the waterfront site.

The company has been unable to obtain financing because of lagging sales. The developer canceled more than $50 million in sales contracts and returned buyers' 20% deposits.

The company is open to partnering with another developer or selling part of the land or selling the land all together. The property is zoned for 1,750 residences and 240,000 square feet of commercial use. New Port originally called for 1,200 condominiums, a 300-slip marina, a park, shops and two restaurants near the foot of the Gandy Bridge, west of West Shore Boulevard.

The other big development planned for South West Shore Boulevard is on the site of the Georgetown Apartments, north of Gandy Boulevard.

Fort Lauderdale-based developer Motta Group recently vacated the property but still hasn't released its development plans. The brick buildings are empty, and gates to the development are locked.

+ Company seeks

motivation in new name

An entrepreneur's two-year quest to stop a sales slide and focus on a new direction has led to one of the riskiest decisions a company could make: A name change.

And the name being changed is one that's 25 years old: Photo-Tech, a Sarasota-based photography company that, for the bulk of its existence, has focused on taking pictures at corporate events and parties. The company, which still provides those services, is now called Motiva.

The new name better reflects what the company actually does in its entirety, founder Peter Turo tells Coffee Talk. Adds Turo: "We are not really in the business of photography anymore."

Instead, the company uses photography and pictures as just one tool in its overall role as a corporate consultant, creating services and products geared toward helping companies retain, and motivate, their workforces. Hence, Motiva.

Despite the risk of confusing customers and losing brand reputation, Turo says the name change is an integral component to the company's ongoing strategy change. The transformation began in early 2006, following a 20% annual revenue drop, from $6 million to $4 million.

The drop was mostly attributed to a changing marketplace. Photo-Tech's biggest customers, large New York-based companies, were utilizing the wonders of do-it-yourself digital photography and didn't need services like Photo-Tech as much.

Turo's business was slowly going from professional service to commodity (See Review, 6/23/06).

Turo and his staff began executing the new motivation strategy well before the name change.

More recently, Turo has begun looking to test out the new strategy in other markets besides the Gulf Coast and New York, its two main customer bases. With the name officially changed to Motiva, Turo's now seeking a sales staff for a West Coast office in Los Angeles and he's considering opening an office in London, especially given the devaluation of the American dollar. The company also has a new Web site, www.motivausa.com.

ECONOMIC SNAPSHOT

Gulf Coast consumer nondurable sales in September

(Dollars in millions)

Metro area Taxable sales of consumer nondurables %year-over-year change

Fort Myers $236.2 0.1%

Naples $125.7 ‑4.2%

Punta Gorda $50.7 ‑5.9%

Sarasota $240.2 ‑3.3%

Tampa $998.5 ‑1.2%

Source: Florida Legislature Office of Economic and Demographic Research

What the data shows: Gulf Coast residents still bought groceries, clothes and books in September but at a slower pace than last year. Consumer nondurables taxable sales include food and convenience stores, department and clothing stores, drug stores, antique dealers, bookstores, florists, pet dealers and suppliers. They also include a hodgepodge of sales that doesn't fit easily into a category, such as vending machines and utilities.

What it means: Although Gulf Coast residents have severely cut back spending on big-ticket items such as cars and washing machines, they're not cutting back a lot on food and clothing. Surprisingly, the Fort Myers area has had the smallest decline in taxable sales of consumer nondurables of any area on the Gulf Coast despite the area being one of the worst affected by the housing downturn.

Forecast: Job and population growth, along the Gulf Coast will continue to prop us sales of consumer nondurables. They're not likely to be as impacted by economic swings as sales of durable goods.

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