It’s been a wild year for most. But for the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County it’s been a rollercoaster.
In June, the Sarasota County Commission, with a 3-2 vote, approved a proposal to begin phasing out the county’s local business tax that provided more than $1 million in funding for the EDC. Around the same time, an out-of-state candidate for the vacant CEO position pulled out of consideration for the job.
By August, the organization named prominent area insurance and business executive Lisa Krouse as the new CEO — first as interim then shortly removing the temporary tag. Now everything is changing as the team assesses what this particular EDC should look like and focus on.
Krouse says the team has been mainly focused on creating stability within the organization, adding they are “challenging ourselves to make sure our mission is strongly communicated and that everyone understands what our mission is.” Part of that has meant ensuring every part of the community is represented on the EDC’s board.
Until recently, the creative and educational sectors as well as the city of North Port, in south Sarasota County, weren’t represented in any capacity. “Economic development is not segmented,” Krouse says. “We represent an entire community. We need to be sure that voices are included in the conversation. That’s a little bit different than we have viewed it in the past where we have responded to investors. I think our investors want us to have a bright view of the community.”
The defunding proposal won’t kick in until the end of 2022, starting with a 33% drop in county-based funding. By 2024, under the proposal, the county will zero out the contribution, returning about $5.96 million to the county's general fund. Some $1 million would be left for future EDC incentive opportunities. In fiscal year 2021, the EDC’s $1.7 million budget included $1.07 million in public funding, with the other portion coming from private sources.
One of the first things Krouse announced as CEO was putting together a task force to restructure the EDC. The task force has since met with officials from the Bradenton Area EDC, Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, Visit Sarasota and former Sarasota County EDC presidents for their views on the future of this EDC as well as what it should look like in 2050.
The work, overall, under Krouse and her team, including Erin Silk, vice president of business development services, has begun to pay off — with several big wins to end the year. On a macro-level, the EDC, Silk says, has recently contributed to projects that represent 400 new jobs for local companies and over $15 million in capital investment. Specifically, that includes companies like Rumble, a Toronto-based video and social media platform that recently announced plans to move its headquarters to Sarasota, on Longboat Key. Rumble plans to create 165 high-wage jobs locally over the next five years,
“They could have gone anywhere,” Silk says. “But they looked at Sarasota County and decided it was the right place for them.”
Krouse and Silk have been meeting with and touring local businesses, too. The list includes skin health startup Omeza and Commercial Residential Aluminum in Venice. Those meetings, in part, are to address a concern Sarasota County Commissioner Mike Moran harped on when he led the defunding effort. Moran had said it would be hard to find a straight answer from business owners if you asked them what the EDC has done to support them.
That question feeds into a bigger question EDCs statewide have grappled with for years: Should the EDC offer incentives for businesses to move here? Or focus on the businesses already here? Krouse says there’s a mix of opinions with many businesses here wondering why the EDC would give out funds to businesses outside of the community when there are businesses here that could use the support. “It’s a legitimate question,” she says.
If anything, the new leadership is eager to strengthen those community relationships. Krouse credits Silk with leading the charge there. “She’s created an intimate relationship with the clients and businesses she’s working with,” Krouse says. “One of the things that Erin does very quickly is she can assess the needs of the client at any stage in the formulation of the project plan.”
Case in point: last month a CEO from Chicago visited after expressing interest in moving to the area. Silk showed up to the airport with an itinerary in hand ready to give her a tour of the town. The businesswoman’s one request was to meet with another female senior leader within the same industry. Silk set it up.
“When a company is making a big investment, whether it’s an expansion or a move, they really want to feel like they’re moving to a place and a community that’s going to support them,” Silk says. “That introduction with a peer who is doing the same thing, with the same challenges and wins — it’s like watching magic. It just clicks. That’s what makes a difference.”
As the EDC’s board decides on the next steps, Krouse says they’re not cutting any corners. “We’re going to do things the right way,” she says. “As someone who wants to make a difference in the community, I want us to think more broadly about filling the needs of the community. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable.”
As they prepare the budget for 2022, they’re going to be putting the work of the task force aside. Krouse adds they plan to meet with officials from other municipalities and the county to have a conversation about what kind of work they should be doing while ensuring the budget mirrors that work.
“That’s going to be a slow-go,” she says. “We’re OK with that. We feel good about the direction that we are going.”
In 2021, many companies discovered new ways to adjust to the pandemic. These nimble entrepreneurs believe that know-how — and guts — will be a key factor for continued success in 2022. Click the links below to read more about the Business Observer's 2021 newsmakers.