Peter Bartolotta believes subsidies and incentives, the vaunted currency of economic development agencies, is destined for failure.
The riskiest part of that conviction, however, could be the title that precedes Bartolotta: Cofounder and interim executive director of the North Port Economic Development Corp. Bartolotta helped launch the privately run, non-government, nonprofit group in April.
Like dozens of other economic development organizations on the Gulf Coast, both private and government-funded, the North Port EDC's overall purpose is, simply, to increase the region's economic vitality. But Bartolotta hopes to take a path to vitality that veers considerably from the traditional model.
That model is based on subsides, in that an agency lures a business to town by dangling cash, tax breaks or other financial incentives. Bartolotta, though, says incentives are the enemy of sustainable economic development.
“I think incentives are the last thing that should be on the table,” says Bartolotta. “I'm kind of disappointed when we move companies across (county) borders. That's not economic development. If we attract companies that are interested in incentives, they will only be around as long as the checkbook is open. You can't win in that arena.”
Adds Bartolotta: “We need to redefine economic development and how it's done.”
The redefinition, says North Port EDC President Mimi Steger, is to help companies already in the area with anything growth related, from consulting to obtaining capital. “The North Port EDC is focused on creating opportunities for businesses to grow from the ground up,” says Steger, “rather than on attracting businesses.”
Several challenges lurk in that mission. First, the agency is in some crowded space. The counties it serves, Charlotte and Sarasota, already have several economic development entities. The city of North Port has an economic development office, too.
“We don't want a turf war,” says Bartolotta. “We just thought there was a need for some other things to happen.”
The second challenge to make things happen, and one that be the most difficult, is funding. Bartolotta, through his consulting firm, North Port-based Acuity Group Management, got the EDC going with a $50,000 investment.
But Bartolotta says the EDC will require an operating budget of $100,000 to $150,000. That includes the salary of a permanent executive director. Those funds would come solely from memberships and investments from businesses. The EDC had raised about $10,000 through mid-November.
While the hurdles are stark, the North Port EDC has one distinct advantage: size. Located on 130 square acres in south Sarasota County, North Port is the county's largest city, with more than 55,000 people, according to U.S. Census data. The region's name was technically even changed, to put North Port ahead of Bradenton and Sarasota.
Bartolotta and Steger want to capitalize on the newfound heft.
“The plan is to stand on our own and not be dependent on government or private enterprise,” says Bartolotta. “We want to earn our right to exist in the marketplace.”
The North Port Economic Development Corp., founded in April, has already succeeded in one task: It has generated buzz in the business community. Indeed, its advisory board is made up of some well-known business leaders. Members include:
• Dave Dignam, owner, Key Agency
• Scott Greer, regional president, BB&T Bank
• Tim Mapp, owner, Mapp Realty & Investment
• Angela Massaro-Fain, founder/president, Grapevine Communications
• Gene Matthews, retired, Real Estate/Insurance
• Robert McMillan, former chairman, Panama Canal Commission board of directors
• Jeff Ruggieri, managing partner, Acuity Planning
• Geri Waksler, partner, Berntsson, Ittersagen, Gunderson, Waksler & Wideikis, LLP
• Beth Wilson, owner, TaxSavers, Inc.
• Peter Wozniak, CEO, Venice Regional Medical Center