Published Jan. 26, 2011

TWISler Breakdown: DEAL or No DEAL

This week the TWISler’s going to play a little game called DEAL or No DEAL. That’s because last week residents of the Suncoast were treated to the unexpected news that all of the economic development entities that currently exist in Sarasota and Manatee Counties will soon be housed under the same roof. That roof will be located in Lakewood Ranch and will sit on top of a 72,000-square-foot, three-story building that goes by the name Design & Economic Acceleration Lab, or “DEAL” for all you acronym junkies. Now, we have plenty of usual gripes about the progress of local developments, but “it happened too fast” is rarely one of them. Alas, with an estimated construction cost of $14.2 million and a proposed grand opening only 18 months away, that may actually be the case when it comes to the DEAL deal. In a town with such a determined lack of urgency to complete things, how did a project of this magnitude manage to advance from idea to implementation in less than eight weeks? Right now we’re chalking it up to some sort of miraculous divine intervention. Of course, we’d never rule out the possibility of a good ol’ fashioned shady backroom DEAL. With this many huge players involved, God only knows what all’s been said. But we can give you a general overview of how the project came about. Basically, the story goes like this:
Once upon a time (November 2010) in a land far, far away (Sarasota and Manatee Counties) three prominent groups of folks got together and decided that they needed to make it easier for businesses looking to move to their land to find information and resources. The first group (State College of Florida, Sarasota-Manatee) was the oldest and largest of all the higher education institutions in the land. The second group (Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., or SMR) had won awards for a master-planned community they had developed in the land (Lakewood Ranch). The third group (Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice) was the largest community foundation in all of the lands (Florida). These three powerful groups came up with a plan to build a grand banquet hall (Design & Economic Acceleration Lab, or DEAL) where they could host businesses from all corners of the world and persuade them to move to their land by offering incentives. When the groups revealed their plan to the people of the land, many people were very surprised with how fast they had put the plan together (two months). The people were used to seeing plans in their land be held up by red tape and politics, so they were happy to see a plan approved with such few hassles. The people soon realized how much they liked their plans without hassles, and hoped that this plan for the new grand banquet hall would not be… —The End
OK, let me get this straight. Last week TWISler talked about our city’s penchant for forming new groups as opposed to uniting existing ones. A few weeks prior we discussed our city’s lack of skill for accomplishing things in a reasonable time frame. And before that we delved into our city’s affection for nonsensical regulations that keep young professionals from moving here. But that was last week. This week, it seems all those problems have magically been solved. At least that appears to be the deal in regards to the DEAL.

The initial January 18 press conference was cleverly held on a University Parkway median — literally straddling the dividing line between the two counties. Speakers included two state senators, a lieutenant governor, a college president, a corporation president, two county administrators and four members of boards of trustees or directors, all mounting the podium to pledge their undying support for Sarasota and Manatee’s freshly consummated business building love fest, heralding the benefits of their newly adopted “regional approach” to economic development.

The project came together so fast that they apparently didn’t even have time to mention it to a number of the groups included in the plan before it was unveiled. Although most were present at the event, none have officially signed on. Both the Sarasota and Manatee County Commissioners received their initial briefing right along with reporters. Even the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County hadn’t heard much about it. Indeed, EDC President Kathy Baylis admitted that her agency’s board had yet to even discuss their possible role in DEAL saying, “We’re waiting for more of a business plan,” while Manatee Economic Development Council President Beth Bender was quoted saying, “We are just excited to be at the table.” Hopefully, they’ll get in the loop soon, since both will potentially be moving in.

But not everyone is eager to hop in this bi-county economic orgy, including North Port Commissioner Jim Blucher who worries that NP will get the shaft if all the economic brainpower is centered in LWR. In fact, North Port and Englewood are probably starting to feel a little bit like Milton from Office Space: “Um, yeah, we’re moving your desk to the opposite end of the county. I’ll also need to get that stapler from you. And no, you can’t have it back.”

Then there’s the inevitable bitching and moaning from local competitors like USF, who are a bit peeved that SCF plans to start offering some four-year degrees that will rival their own programs. Wait, four-year? Oh, that’s right. I forgot to mention the actual intention behind this whole thing, which is the expansion of SCF into a full four-year school, complete with charter middle and high schools, all located on the site of their new 150-acre campus in Lakewood Ranch, also known as the future home of DEAL. Well, it’s a good thing SMR president Rex Jensen has offered SCF up to 300 acres to potentially buy up, should they need more room to expand “down the road.”

So, what do you think? Is the DEAL project really all about attracting businesses to the area and improving the local economy, or is that just the pretty face being put on a multi-million dollar development to benefit Lakewood Ranch and provide SCF with financial support from groups like the Gulf Coast Community Foundation to purchase cheap land for future expansion? And that’s how you play DEAL or No DEAL.

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