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EDC director sees bright spots amid economic turmoil


BRADENTON - Eric Basinger hasn't felt the winds of a Florida hurricane yet, but the man who came from Alabama to become the head of the Economic Development Center has been dealing with an economic storm that has swept away most of the evidence of recent prosperity.

With unemployment in both Manatee and Sarasota counties over 11 percent, small businesses and retailers failing, talk of more cuts in local governments' payrolls, and more fallout from the real estate bust, it's easy to surrender to despair. Basinger says he has a positive outlook for the area, and he believes there's a lot of potential in the area.

But he's also realistic.

"This economy, it's like a steamroller just came and leveled it. And that's happened at other times in our history, and we've come out totally different," he said.

It was kind of the same story in Alabama, though the auto company Hyundai seems to be weathering the storm better than other manufacturers, he said. Still, the fall in exports is hurting everyone.

"We're all dealing with the same difficult national and international economy, so that's no different. The housing market has been much harder hit here than in Alabama, without doubt," Basinger said. "This market was at one time not too long ago the hottest market in the country, for the new-home construction. It only stands to reason that if there's a catastrophic economic downtown that is based on housing and lending, we're going to be disproportionately affected."

In Alabama, he said, some coastal communities got caught up in the boom, too, and are feeling the effects of the downturn as prices fall, too.

The question is: How do you get the economy to come back?

What they did in Alabama was not what they would do here, he said.

"I doubt automotive would be a hot market in the Tampa Bay area, but there are definitely some good things about the aerospace business and what we were successful with in the community I was in," Basinger said. "I think we could be successful in aerospace here as well. It's not a bad target to look at. It is being affected, like every industry sector, but those can be very high-paying jobs. I think anything that's going to pay good wages that we have some skill sets that fit with it, we ought to be looking at it."

Rays of hope

Manatee County has some serious advantages, Basinger said, that could be a sign for the future.

"A lot of them don't have any answers," he said of other parts of the country and their response to the economic challenges. "We do. We've got the port. You don't have many deep-sea ports in the country, but we do. We have rail, we have interstate access, we have good water resources. A lot of places are having water wars. Manatee County is very good in that regard, and that's a big driver for what types of manufacturing you get."

As for corporate headquarters, look at the buildings, he said. "We have available buildings, extremely nice condition office buildings that are empty and on the market, waiting for a user. A lot of places would have to build that building."

On the EDC's Web site, Basinger said, there are plenty of buildings available. "And we have the people that can go in there. The headquarters that are here, they're happy and they're doing well," he said.

And the EDC is ready to help businesses, both local and those thinking of coming here.

The workforce in the area is different from the workforce in Alabama, Basinger said.

"To me, one of the attractive things about this market is that the workforce seems more diverse. We have opportunities. There's been success here corporate headquarters, everything from corporate headquarters to light manufacturing to some heavy manufacturing," he said. "And you've also had some research and development speckled in there, and not a lot of markets can cater to all those three things. That's quite a big spectrum, and I think that's something unique about our market, And something that's a ray of light for the future, that every single county in this country is going, 'Well, what do we do about the future? What's our future going to be?'"

There's a strong push toward education here, Basinger said, and that's going to be the key to new growth.

"The training resources we have are there to give our kids and students the skills that we need. If we have a particular employer that comes in and needs a particular type of skill that's not readily available, we have the training resources here," he said. "There are counties that have no colleges or career centers or technical training centers. We have all that, and we've got a very diverse college system.

"So there's a lot of things that we have that others don't have, and one of the big differences with the workforce is that it's just a very diverse workforce, and we draw on a metro area of 4 million people. Very few places can say that," including Alabama, which has a population of just 4.66 million, compared to the Tampa Bay area alone with its population of 4 million.

There are some big concerns, with the school district cutting back and public colleges having to deal with less money as the state cuts funding and struggling students stop their education because they can't find jobs or loans to pay for school.

"I think it's worth noting that if you look all over the country, everyone discusses education in a similar way," Basinger said. "Everyone's concerned, everybody knows that that's our future. It's something we have to stay on top of."

The big worry is that the lack of good-paying jobs could drive people out of the area, which could hurt a potential economic recovery. Basinger said he's sensitive to those worries.

Growing local businesses

"This area is very good for entrepreneurs," he said. "I've already seen a lot of it just in the small time I've been here. It just seems like they're all out there, people willing to invest, people willing to take risks, so what we really need to do is make sure that none of those minds leave here, that we lose as few of those minds as possible.

"We need to make sure that if we have the next Bill Gates here, that he stays here and grows better, and makes a business here."

He said the EDC is ready to help small businesses find resources to survive and grow, but that the entrepreneurs have to do the work.

As for Florida, even with its problems and issues, it can come down to quality of life, and that's what Basinger said the state offers.

"The quality of life can trump a lot," he said. "We see an awful lot of people who at some point in their lives have been exposed to Manatee County and they had to go off and make a name for themselves to get going. Now that they've got resources and the wherewithal to come down here and bring their business down here or start their business, now let's see what we can do."

They always wanted to come back here, and California has the same thing going. "It's a quality of life thing. There are certain quality-of-life elements that you can't duplicate somewhere else," he said.

There are 363 business that pay at least 115 percent of the average wage and a lot pay much more, he said.

"I mean, that's a positive thing that we need to just keep in mind. Yes, the economy's tough. Before I left in Alabama, we were getting a lot of people looking around. Starting to see layoffs there," Basinger said. "The states that have received expansions from some of our companies here, their unemployment rates are not pretty either."

The key thing right now, he said, is to keep going and things will eventually improve.

"We just need to continue from Manatee County's side to stay on top of the ever-changing economy," he said. "To me, there is so much to offer here. There's a lot of people here, but there's a sense of community here that you don't find in other places."

People are friendly, and there's something to be said for that, too.

"We have a lot of good things ahead of us in Manatee County," Basinger said. "What we need to do is make sure that people have the image in their minds that this is a great place to do business rather than just a great place to visit. That's what we need."


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