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Business Observer Thursday, Sep. 11, 2008 10 years ago

Gulf Coast Week

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Judges to rule on mayor issueThe consolidation of power in Hillsborough County government through an elected county mayor is now going to a three-judge panel.Historic school demolishedAmid protests from preservationists, workers demolished the historic Gary Adult High School in Ybor City, which may make way for a sports complex, the property owner says.Bilirakis' biometrics billU.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the first-term Republican representing the Tampa Bay Area's Ninth Congressional District of Florida, has sponsored a bill to require the government to use more biometrics.Budget deficit loomsFor the first time in a decade, Sarasota County might be operating under a budget deficit.Food distributor finedThe Palmetto-based branch of Sysco Food services, one of the largest food and beverage distributors on the Gulf Coast, has entered into an agreement with the state Attorney General's office regarding allegations that it sold fish labeled as grouper that was actually other varieties and species.Tourism numbers declineThe estimated number of visitors to Lee County declined 6.7% in July to 443,166 compared with the same month a year ago, according to figures compiled by Davidson Peterson Associates for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau.Whole Foods at MercatoWhole Foods Market, the natural and organic food supermarket, opened its first store in Southwest Florida in Naples.Tourism tax increaseManatee

Gulf Coast Week

TAMPA BAY

Judges to rule on mayor issue

The consolidation of power in Hillsborough County government through an elected county mayor is now going to a three-judge panel.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal listened to oral arguments over whether voters will get to decide Nov. 4 about an elected county mayor in Hillsborough. This would likely weaken the power of the county commission and affect how businesses interact with the county.

Proponents gathered enough signatures to make the 2008 ballot, but because it took longer than planned, the petition calls for a mayor to be elected in 2008 when the earliest one could be elected would be 2010.

That is allowing opponents avenue for call it confusing.

Historic school demolished

Amid protests from preservationists, workers demolished the historic Gary Adult High School in Ybor City, which may make way for a sports complex, the property owner says.

The city was concerned about structural safety and issued an emergency order giving owner John Simon the right to raze the building.

Simon wants to rezone the property to build a sports complex. The project has a design incorporating parts of the school's fa├žade. Simon plans to salvage the school's bricks in hopes of reusing them for sidewalks and parking.

Bilirakis' biometrics bill

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the first-term Republican representing the Tampa Bay Area's Ninth Congressional District of Florida, has sponsored a bill to require the government to use more biometrics.

In July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2490. The bill requires the U.S. Coast Guard to collect biometric information on waterborne aliens and screen them against existing federal databases of those wanted for immigration violations and other transgressions of U.S. laws.

Ceelox, a Tampa-based software development firm (see the Review story April 11, 2008), hosted a visit from Bilirakis in his effort to learn more about biometrics. Ceelox programs use fingerprint scanners to create a bio-template ID. The programs eliminate the need for users to enter passwords.

SARASOTA/MANATEE

Budget deficit looms

For the first time in a decade, Sarasota County might be operating under a budget deficit.

Not surprisingly, a declining tax base due to shrinking property values and an increase in homestead exemptions, state voters approved last year get the blame for the projected $16 million deficit.

County officials say the budget is equipped to run at a deficit, at least in the short term, because it built up its reserves during the housing boom. It also has spent the past year or so finding places to cut in the budget, including layoffs. Overall, the county has cut or eliminated about 200 jobs over the past year.

Food distributor fined

The Palmetto-based branch of Sysco Food services, one of the largest food and beverage distributors on the Gulf Coast, has entered into an agreement with the state Attorney General's office regarding allegations that it sold fish labeled as grouper that was actually other varieties and species.

The Attorney General's investigation, spanning nearly two years, found that Sysco supplied grouper to 14 of the 17 restaurants under investigation for serving alternate species of the costly fish - while charging the higher prices normally connected with grouper. The settlement with the Attorney General's office requires Sysco to take "commercially reasonable steps" to determine its grouper products are grouper before marketing it as such.

What's more, Sysco was fined $300,000, with $100,000 going to local food and hunger related charities and $200,000 going to reimburse the state for investigative costs and attorney's fees.

LEE/COLLIER

Tourism numbers decline

The estimated number of visitors to Lee County declined 6.7% in July to 443,166 compared with the same month a year ago, according to figures compiled by Davidson Peterson Associates for the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau. Fewer than half of those visitors stayed in hotels and other paid accommodations, with more than half staying with friends or relatives.

The number of domestic visitors who stayed in paid accommodations declined 4.5% to 162,920 in July compared with July 2007. But those who came from Germany surged 487% to 16,145. Foreign visitors are prized because they stay longer and spend more.

But international traffic statistics weren't all positive. Visitors from the United Kingdom dropped 77% to 4,403 in July. The number of Canadian visitors also declined 88% to 1,468.

In a survey of hoteliers, the research firm found that 52% reported worse occupancies in July than in the same month a year ago and 54% reported worse revenues. In projections of the next three months, property managers in July reported they were more likely to see more European visitors and fewer American or Canadian visitors.

Whole Foods at Mercato

Whole Foods Market, the natural and organic food supermarket, opened its first store in Southwest Florida in Naples.

The 52,000-square-foot supermarket anchors the Mercato, a $300-million mixed-use project being developed by the Lutgert Cos. and Barron Collier Cos. at the corner of U.S. 41 and Vanderbilt Beach Road.

The store includes a 4,000-square-foot produce section, a prepared-food department that includes a brick-oven pizzeria, a 24-foot seafood counter and a wine department with 900 hard-to-find wines.

Scheduled to open in February, the Mercato features 330,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 140,000 square feet of office space and 175 condos.

Tourism tax increase

Manatee County commissioners are considering permanently raising the county's 3-cent bed tax by one cent in an effort to pump more money into its tourism marketing budget.

The bed tax currently brings in more than $5 million a year for the county, half of which is spent on advertising and marketing. And 25% of that tax was based on a temporary 1-cent increase passed in 2003 that expires by the end of 2008. The bed tax is levied on guests in hotels, motels and short-term rental.

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