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Local businesses finding ways to survive and thrive


No one has a broader smile or makes a finer Cubano sandwich than Jose Baserva, owner and chef of Jose's Restaurant at 8799 Cortez Road. Jose's is jammed with natives and tourists eager to savor his roasted pork and chicken and yellow rice. "On a scale of one to 10, our business is 9?," Baserva says.

Born in Santiago, Cuba, Fidel Castro's hometown, Baserva came to America in 1959. Where else will you find Fidel Castro's face on the toilet paper? You will in Jose's bathrooms.

Is Budweiser beer recession-proof? "We're not recession proof, but recession resistant," says John Saputo, owner of the Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, Manatee and Sarasota counties' Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship.

For 33 years Saputo has been in the beer business, and for the first time he has experienced a mass exodus of his best customers; those in the 25-35 age bracket. Saputo says more than 17,000 mostly young people looking for work in the construction business have left this area for possible jobs in Texas, the Carolinas and Tennessee.

"The truth will set you free. The Marines taught me to face facts, and the facts are we have to learn to diversify our economy, and not just depend on sunshine, tourism and home building," Saputo says. More than 120 taverns have closed in Manatee and Sarasota counties in the past two years.

"That's the first time I've seen such widespread bars going out of business. Even convenience stores have been hurt," he says.

But Saputo has not had to lay off any of his 150 employees. "I'm having no turnover and no one is leaving," he says. "Our profitability is depressed because our customers are trading down from Corona to Michelob to Budweiser, from the more expensive to less profitable beers."

The solution to getting our economy humming again, Saputo maintains, is for

municipalities to seek new industries, and suspend local impact fees. These impact fees help pay for schools, police, roads, parks and other infrastructure needs.

In pursuing new jobs, the Manatee County Commission has agreed to offer tax relief for new employers investing in companies near Port Manatee. Local governments have also implemented their own stimulus programs. The Manatee County School Board recommended that the county suspend impact fees on new construction, at an estimated loss of $5 million. So dire is the local economy that the school district will cut 75 teaching jobs next year. In Sarasota County, more than 225 teachers will lose their jobs.

Proponents of an impact fee holiday say this will stimulate the economy by providing much-needed jobs. However, attorney Ernest Marshall, president of the Federation of Manatee County Community Associations, says suspending impact fees is popular with some politicians but makes no sense economically.

"Developers will not suffer, but residents will," Marshall says.

The city of Bradenton recently voted to postpone for a year their its fees, while the city of Palmetto is considering waiving impact fees. The Manatee County Commission on April 7 asked its lawyers to prepare a resolution trimming road impact fees 50 percent for years, at an estimated cost to the county of about $9 million.

"We need to be pro-business and pro-control growth," Saputo says. His model for success is Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch. "Rex never says no and that's why businesses are eager to work with him," he says.

Has Pandora's box been open for developers to eliminate state laws regulating growth and standards? State Sen. Mike Bennett, a developer, is fighting to abolish Florida's Department of Community Affairs and growth management mandates.

The roads to the beaches are jammed, so how's the tourism business? Larry White, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, believes tourism is flourishing.

"This year we are going to come out OK," White said. "We were holding our breath when we got reports that our October-November revenues were down 7 percent."

But a combination of beautiful weather and gorgeous beaches makes White feel more positive about the future. "There is no doubt this is a bad recession, but business was even worse in the post-9/11 period, when planes were not flying or were not the choice of transportation," he says. The low comparative cost for family vacationing in Manatee County keeps White smiling.

Another happy entrepreneur is Ed Chiles, who owns three of the most popular restaurants on our islands. "Business has been excellent," Chiles says. "We are very fortunate that we have had a lot of international and national publicity. Our million-dollar new deck and wedding facilities have created an environment where our business has never been better."

Gourmands continue to flock to Harry's Continental Kitchen on the north end of Longboat Key. For 30 years, award-winning chefs Lynn and Harry Christensen have wowed diners with their delectable dishes. But it's more than toiling over a hot stove that has made Harry's such a popular restaurant.

"We give back to our community," Harry says. "We're contributing our food to nonprofit organizations who are hurting and are forced to have fundraisers on the Key. I believe in karma."

For 11 years, Jan Holman has operated The Sea Hagg, a nautical gift shop, on Cortez Road just before the bridge to the Island. When you enter you might think you have walked into Charles Dickens's "The Old Curiosity Shop," strewn with gifts from the sea.

"Our location and desire to please our customers pays off," Holman says. "Our business is wonderful."

One business that's not wonderful but thriving is the explosive violence and thievery.

"Because of the recession, there has been a spike in burglaries of businesses and residences," says Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube. "We are also discovering a big increase in shoplifting. Our staff is just overwhelmed with this surge of crime."


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