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North Port business growth sparks entrepreneurship events

The Sarasota County Connect business networking event was filled to capacity, with 100 attendees.
The Sarasota County Connect business networking event was filled to capacity, with 100 attendees.
Image courtesy of The Digital Collective at the 26 West Entrepreneurship Center
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Entrepreneurs are increasingly choosing North Port for their operations, and a group of more than 100 converged recently in the city at the first-of-its-kind business networking event.

Nearly 160 businesses have opened their doors in the city so far in fiscal year 2024, North Port Economic Development Manager Vinnie Mascarenhas tells the Business Observer. Since the municipality’s fiscal year began in October, a steady stream of businesses has been added to the its roster, primarily in the service industry.

“People are moving here,” Mascarenhas says. “Our quality of life has a lot to do with it. It’s a safe city. It’s well located with Interstate 75. We are proximate to some of the most beautiful beaches in the world…[and] schools are outstanding. When businesses and people are looking at southwest Florida, they take a really hard look at North Port.”

Those moving to North Port are “younger, our median income is now over $78,500 annually — so [they're] more affluent — and they want to work for themselves,” Mascarenhas says.

Most of the new businesses are in the service industry providing things like air conditioning, and there are “a lot of foodies,” Mascarenhas says. As more food trucks have taken to the streets, she adds, the city is rewriting its development code to allow for more mobile food truck areas.

“In south county, we’ve got some amazing food trucks. They’re popular, and they’re growing,” Mascarenhas says. “We get calls from food trucks that are looking to open up brick and mortar.”

To bolster support for the city’s new and existing businesses, North Port recently hosted a networking event featuring a panel of local business owners, including John Horne, CEO of Oysters Rock Hospitality and Anna Maria Oyster Bar; Jamie Lovern, founder and CEO at Lolablue LLC of North Port; and Tyler Holt, president of AvSky Jets of Englewood. Tra Williams, president and CEO at Bradenton's FleetForce Truck Driver Training School and author of "Boss Brain," was the keynote speaker.

The city of North Port co-sponsored the "Sarasota County Connect" networking session and panel discussion April 11 along with the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, Wellen Park, the North Port Area Chamber of Commerce and the 26 West Center.

Hurricane leads to opportunity

Growth in the city of North Port, coupled with its devastation from Hurricane Ian, helped spur the idea of a networking event from concept to reality.

“Definitely Hurricane Ian put a real impetus on this, of taking our only cooperative workspace,” Mascarenhas says. The Hive, a coworking space on US 41 in North Port, was taken out by the hurricane, and after it went out of commission, she says, the city and its partners began dialoguing about “the real need to have support networks in place like most large, up-and-coming cities do” for entrepreneurs, with things like co-working spaces, classes, workshops and one-stop resource shops.

“We’re seeing we need to use the partners that we have,” Mascarenhas says.

Among the partners is 26 West Center, which offers tools for budding entrepreneurs such as workshops, noncredit courses, office space, a coding center and business incubator program. As part of the State College of Florida, 26 West Center is based in Bradenton. “We’re now able to bring our expertise a little further south,” says Kim Richmond, director of 26 West Center.

“It was exciting to feel the energy in the room from everybody,” Richmond says of the April 11 event, noting for her the highlight was Williams, who spoke about competition as a positive force that drives businesses to be better for their customers.

A panel of local entrepreneurs spoke at the April 11 networking event.
The Digital Collective at the 26 West Entrepreneurship Center

The pandemic and Hurricane Ian plus North Port’s growth helped shape the evening’s discussion, she says. For example, Lovern, who now sells her soaps at Whole Foods, shared that during the pandemic, her business pivoted toward hand sanitizer, Richmond says.

“People talked about it in the past – that it was an experience, that it taught us all things,” Richmond says of Hurricane Ian and the pandemic, but what struck her was “how positive everybody is about the outlook” moving forward.

“This idea of really cultivating this [entrepreneurship series] in this area that was devastated and is now growing so much was the way to frame the evening. It really made for lively interactive discussion to literally and figuratively start the conversation,” Richmond says.

For Mascarenhas, there was a moment she described as "electric" when Horne talked about opening the new North Port location of the Anna Maria Oyster Bar. He said he hired 36 people on the spot at a recent job fair, mostly people from North Port. "Everybody was feeling that in the audience," Mascarenhas says, "that in North Port we’re going to get an Anna Maria Oyster Bar."



Elizabeth King

Elizabeth is a business news reporter with the Business Observer, covering primarily Sarasota-Bradenton, in addition to other parts of the region. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she previously covered hyperlocal news in Maryland for Patch for 12 years. Now she lives in Sarasota County.

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