During three of her four-plus years with the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, Erin Silk has worked under two interim executive directors who worked to transition it into the more responsive, results-oriented organization demanded by its primary benefactor, the Sarasota County Commission. She's learned a lot in that role.
A fourth-generation Silk in Sarasota County, she recalls her grandfather saying the Silks arrived here on horse and buggy. The Maryland native, who began her career in the Baltimore area, followed the family footsteps here in 2015, when she became CEO of Venice Main Street. She joined the EDC in 2019.
In June, the EDC board officially chose Silk as president and CEO, succeeding Lisa Krouse, who held the role on an interim basis for 18 months. Silk takes over at a crucial time, with the county commission demanding greater communication and more measurables to justify the more than $1 million per year in funding it provides.
On her first day as the new leader of the EDC, Silk talked with the Sarasota Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer, about economic development activity in the county and how the seven-member organization will work to bring in new companies; help existing companies find new space to expand; address the shortage of light industrial sites needed to create those new jobs; and meet the return on investment demands of the commissioners. Edited excerpts:
You joined the EDC at a time when the County Commission was questioning its effectiveness. How do you assess the changes since 2019?
What has kept us going is a strong board of directors and a strong commitment from the community to say they expect something different from the EDC. Sometimes change brings out good. Sometimes challenge brings out the best, and that's what I see happening. Dave Bullock was the absolute best leader for the time period that he was with us (18 months). He only thought he was going to be with us for three months. And then Lisa Krouse was the absolute best person to lead us at the time that she did. And I hope that as we look back, the same will be said about me.
The County Commission is expecting measurable results. In an endeavor that is often intangible, how will you meet that demand?
Right now in our project pipeline we have 80 projects. About 50 are out of market companies that have identified or we've had initial conversations with about Sarasota County, logistics companies included. There are about 30 local companies that are here and growing, like light industrial and high-tech manufacturing. They're having trouble identifying sites and we're helping them with that. These are great companies and great fits for our community. We’re all working together for the greater good of our residents.
What we've done is above and beyond our contractual obligation for quarterly metrics. We are providing a monthly report to the commission that also goes to all of the interlocal partners. And it's not just metrics, it’s also about seven projects that we are going to close (on the sites) in 2023. We have five more that are slated to close in 2024. It's a deeper dive into our process of what is actually in our pipeline. Additionally, we are having one-on-ones with our commissioners on a quarterly basis, and that's brand new to us. We're also inviting them to some of the projects that we're working with and supporting our businesses. Getting to participate in our work I hope will have a real effect when you can see the connections being made. We can put that on a spreadsheet and it doesn't mean anything until you actually get into our work, see it in action and hear from the people it impacts.
How do you define the personality of the local economy?
What we've seen in downtown Sarasota is this incredible attraction to entrepreneurs who are relocating to the Sarasota area, and they're not just brand-new entrepreneurs that are on their first startup. ... They could go launch their next endeavor anywhere in the world but they want to be here in Sarasota County. Maybe they moved to Sarasota or Siesta Key with their family. Maybe COVID has brought them here and they find this is a great place for business. There's been a really exciting and cool energy on tech entrepreneurialism, particularly around the downtown Sarasota area.
How do inventory levels of commercial and industrial space impact recruiting for logistics and high industrial?
Our vacancy rate is extremely low, and one of the issues we've encountered is with our growing population you have more logistics needs, whether it's food distribution or just everything that supports a growing residential population. We've had companies come to us and say we know we need to be in Sarasota County. They know exactly where they want to be and exactly what they need to do, and they're coming to us and we can't find a site.
How is that being addressed?
The County Commission has worked over the last two years to create a new business park overlay. This isn’t something that is brand new, but it's been exacerbated by the demand. It's been something we've had our eye on for a while, and now there is this overlay in different corridors of unincorporated Sarasota County, where if a property owner so chooses, they could apply for rezoning that otherwise would have not been an option for them. I really see our team as a connector, making sure that as we hear from those logistics companies we can explain to them that this is an option. We're helping to educate them. We're helping to connect them to property owners, helping to try to move the needle. And again, it's a five- to 10-year outlook on that.
What is the economic future of the county?
We have become a serious destination for business. We have built a reputation as an exciting place for business, and I see it in the conversations we're having, the people reaching out to us. Our center of influence has gotten broader and wider where we're having people reach out from Canada and France and they have an interest to be in Sarasota County.
Economic development means a whole lot of things, and this organization continues to evolve. It’s been about diversifying the economy. We have fantastic hospitality, tourism, construction and health care. We need to be diverse and we need to not be relying on certain sectors. Our niche is helping to diversify the economy, and it is a long-term investment. You can't diversify an economy over the span of six months or a year. It isn't a five-year or even a 20-year time frame.
This article originally appeared on sister site YourObserver.com.