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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 11, 2008 10 years ago

Gulf Coast Week

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New Romark drug: Romark Laboratories, a Tampa-based biotechnology company, hopes to prove that a drug used to treat gastrointestinal illnesses in children and adults is effective against hepatitis C, the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.USF Confucius Institute: The University of South Florida won a competitive bid to launch one of the newest Confucius Institutes, cultural centers that China has spread to universities globally.Work Tools expands: Work Tools International, one of the world's largest manufacturers of specialty and decorative paint applicators, is utilizing a $3.2 million Industrial Revenue Bond to finance an expansion in Pinellas Park.High-end jet service: Corporate Eagle, which sells high-end jet time to companies, will set up shop at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport later this year.Vibhakar pleads guilty: The founder and one-time president of a Palmetto-based aerospace parts manufacturing firm admitted in federal court that he sold the U.S. military old and insufficient helicopter engine parts.Permits down to 35: Builders in unincorporated Lee County, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach pulled 35 single-family building permits in December, the lowest since the 45 pulled in November 1981.WCI gets lender extension: Lenders to Bonita Springs-based homebuilder WCI Communities gave the company another nine days to renegotiate loans so it can avoid insolvency. The new deadline is J

Gulf Coast Week

REGIONAL BUSINESS NEWS AT A GLANCE

TAMPA BAY

New Romark drug

Romark Laboratories, a Tampa-based biotechnology company, hopes to prove that a drug used to treat gastrointestinal illnesses in children and adults is effective against hepatitis C, the leading cause of liver transplants in the United States.

If ongoing clinical trials are successful, it could transform Romark's drug, Alinia, into a billion-dollar product. And it would be a breakthrough for the more than 4 million Americans with hepatitis C.

Romark is testing Alinia, in conjunction with the standard treatment, in 120 U.S. hepatitis C patients, half of whom have failed prior treatment. It expects to announce results of the trials by year-end.

USF Confucius Institute

The University of South Florida won a competitive bid to launch one of the newest Confucius Institutes, cultural centers that China has spread to universities globally.

The Confucius Institute at USF is expected to help the educational and business communities in Tampa Bay and throughout Florida develop and promote closer ties with China, the world's fastest-growing economy. USF's campus is the only Florida location for the cultural center, branches of which have proliferated in 64 countries since 2004, including 40 in the United States. USF is running the Confucius Institute with its longtime partner, Nankai University in Tianjin, with which it has exchanged students and faculty for nearly 25 years.

The Chinese government will award USF $100,000 annually for up to five years to teach introductory Chinese, contemporary political science and doing business in China. USF will match that with about $200,000 for the first year.

Work Tools expands

Work Tools International, one of the world's largest manufacturers of specialty and decorative paint applicators, is utilizing a $3.2 million Industrial Revenue Bond to finance an expansion in Pinellas Park.

The expansion includes construction of a 43,600-square-foot building, the purchase of new manufacturing equipment, and the addition of 10 new manufacturing jobs.

The company plans to make more of its WHIZZ line of paint rollers, brushes, handles and poles at its Pinellas Park location. Products will be distributed throughout the U.S. and the Western Hemisphere.

High-end jet service

Corporate Eagle, which sells high-end jet time to companies, will set up shop at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport later this year.

Corporate Eagle Cos., based in suburban Detroit, will build a $5-million-plus terminal with adjacent hangars to handle clients who own shares of aircraft in its fleet of 11 jets and turboprops. The company has 31 members, mostly southeast Michigan corporations that fly executives around the country in private aircraft.

Corporate Eagle will start marketing to Tampa Bay-area companies this spring and base a plane here for clients who commit to buy an aircraft share when the terminal opens in the fall. The company will start with about 10 employees, including mechanics performing maintenance in a second hangar.

SARASOTA/MANATEE

Vibhakar pleads guilty

The founder and one-time president of a Palmetto-based aerospace parts manufacturing firm admitted in federal court that he sold the U.S. military old and insufficient helicopter engine parts.

Hasit Vibhakar, 34, of Ellenton, plead guilty to one count of wire fraud Jan. 4 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's office. The charge alleges that Vibhakar, through the company Telesis Technology Corp., successfully made fraudulent bids over the Internet in 2004 and 2005 in an effort to sell $563,000 worth of engine parts he claimed were new to the U.S. Department of Defense. Telesis relocated the majority of its workforce and manufacturing operations to Superior, Neb., in 2006. The company, a finalist for the Review's Technology Innovation Awards in 2005, was traded publicly up until the federal investigation into Vibhakar ended early last year. At its peak in 2004, it employed as many as 20 people in Manatee County and reported $1.1 million in revenues.

Vibhakar faces up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

LEE/COLLIER

Permits down to 35

Builders in unincorporated Lee County, Bonita Springs and Fort Myers Beach pulled 35 single-family building permits in December, the lowest since the 45 pulled in November 1981.

For all 2007, builders pulled permits for 2,393 single-family homes compared with 7,392 in 2006, a 68% drop.

Despite the significantly lower number of residential permits, the good news for builders is that fewer homes under construction means the excess inventory should begin to decline.

The value of commercial permits in 2007 was $551.4 million compared with $426.6 million in 2006, a 29% increase. Construction companies have said the higher number was due to the fact that they pulled permits early in the year to avoid Lee County's increase in new-construction taxes in February.

WCI gets lender extension

Lenders to Bonita Springs-based homebuilder WCI Communities gave the company another nine days to renegotiate loans so it can avoid insolvency. The new deadline is Jan. 16.

WCI is losing millions of dollars and has $1.9 billion in debt, according to the most recent filings. The company is seeking modifications to the terms of its loans so it can weather Florida's real estate downturn.

In a statement, WCI says it may not be able to draw on additional funds and it may have insufficient working capital if lenders force the company to comply with existing terms. "Either situation could have a material adverse affect on the solvency of the company," WCI officials say in a statement.

JetBlue flies to New York

Discount airline JetBlue inaugurated air service from Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers to Buffalo and White Plains, N.Y., Jan. 8. JetBlue in November carried 78,310 passengers through Fort Myers and was the airport's second-largest carrier by passenger numbers. Only AirTran carried more passengers than JetBlue in November with 79,695.

Nelco sold to competitor

A mother-daughter executive team that built Bradenton-based payroll and personnel firm Nelco into one of the biggest human resources outsourcing firms in Florida sold the company to CoAdvantage, an Orlando-based competitor. A sales price wasn't disclosed for the deal, announced Jan. 3.

Nelco was approached by about 40 potential buyers in what's known as the professional employer organization industry over the last few months, ever since its founder, one time California-based accountant Ginny Dorris, announced her retirement plans. Dorris founded the firm, initially called National Employment Leasing, in 1984. Her daughter, Dori Rath, joined the company in 1990 as it went through a major growth surge, especially in underwriting workers compensation insurance plans and claims processing.

In a statement, Rath said the company accepted CoAdvantage's offer partially because it agreed to keep Nelco's location, 70 employees and management team intact. "We've spent decades building Nelco's excellent reputation," Rath said. "We didn't want to sell the company to anyone less."

CoAdvantage was founded in 1997 and had 2007 revenues of $106 million. Company executives said the Nelco deal, along with the acquisition of another professional employer organization in Salt Lake City, will push the company into the top 10 list of the country's biggest PEOs.

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