Coastal Living, Big Opportunity
Charlotte County, FL
Charlotte County’s population of 173,000 people enjoy twelve miles of sandy beachfront along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico between Miami and Tampa. Charlotte County, Florida is where quality of life meets economic opportunity, and as a result, great things are taking shape.
Charlotte County is a naturally gorgeous place for tourists and seasonal residents. Coastal living in southwest Florida offers both the economic advantages associated with marine shipping channels and, of course, marine recreation. Its beautiful coast gives Charlotte County residents many lifestyle opportunities, but the county also benefits greatly from its location and connections, making it an ideal place to live, work and do business.
It has access to labor and consumer markets as it draws from 3.9 million people who live within a ninety-mile radius. Seventy-five percent of Florida’s population is within 150 miles. Charlotte County is linked to these people and markets by four state highways and two federal highways, as well as water, air and rail transportation channels.
People are drawn to Charlotte County because it is home to one of the world’s largest protected marine estuaries: the Charlotte Harbor/Gasparilla Sound Aquatic Preserve. “Our Charlotte Harbor is an outstanding Florida waterway that is really the heart of the lifestyle here in Charlotte County,” said Charlotte County Economic Development Office Director Lucienne Pears.
“The lifestyle is one where you can be very successful in work, and then the life that you lead outside of the office can be very rewarding as well.” Visitors and residents enjoy nature’s best at one of the many parks and can join in multiple recreational activities such as boating, hiking, biking and golfing. There are also arts, culture, food and retail experiences.
There are four major seaports within a two hundred mile drive; the closest being the Port of Manatee that is sixty miles away. The Port of Manatee has undergone a great deal of investment and upgrades to prepare for the opening of the Panama Canal.
The Charlotte County Economic Development Office (EDO) has a fifteen-year history of stimulating economic and community development in the county. “When the office was originated, existing business retention and expansion was really the key mission of the organization and what most of the efforts were spent doing.” The EDO works tirelessly to promote economic diversity while creating high-skilled, competitive-wage jobs for its residents and expanding the county’s tax base.
“When the recession occurred in 2007/2008, Charlotte County was faced with a very stark realization that the two or three-legged stool that we were on was fairly unstable. Our economy was based on residential construction, sales of those homes to retirees and also the provision of services for not only the retiree market but also the tourism market.”
When the recession struck, much of the disposable income on which the county’s economy depended evaporated. People could no longer support a vacation home on the Florida coast. Money wasn’t being spent on travel and recreation. Not only did the housing market and tourism suffer, but many homes foreclosed. Charlotte County was particularly hard hit.
“We need to try to do what we can to even out the roller coaster of a seasonal economy based on a tourism industry, and we also need to look at rounding out our portfolio in terms of industry,” Pears explained. “We are heavy in construction, tourism, service-related industries, but those don’t provide the sort of stable economic base that you are looking for.”
The mission of the EDO today is, “the creation of high skill, high-wage job opportunities to diversify not only the tax base, but also the industry base in Charlotte County.” Pears pays credit to “a very forward-thinking elected body as well as a community that has a passion for the future and creating a better future for the community,” for the collaborative efforts to support the EDO.
The EDO provides resources to encourage growth and investment in diverse sectors. Some of the business incentives that boost investment in the county are its economic development incentive program, property tax exemptions, targeted industry incentives, workforce training incentives, and infrastructure incentives.
The Charlotte County Certified Sites Program has been a large effort to streamline the investment process. “We don’t have an inventory of existing industrial space. Fortunately, we do have the land available, so we have a couple of things in place to incentivize or to take away some of the barriers to new construction in that industrial space,” Pears noted.
“We created a site certification program so that all of the due diligence that a developer or a builder might be looking for when they are getting ready to construct a new building has already been done: availability of roads, power, sewer, water and oftentimes, fiber, are delivered at many of these sites.”
Charlotte County took this one step further by approaching architects and engineers to create a pre-permitted speculative building or ‘spec building’ that can be customized to meet many needs. Spec buildings can accommodate uses from 10,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet.
“We designed and permitted a 20,000-square foot spec building that meets firm industry standards for what manufacturers are looking for,” said Pears. “We have it designed in such a way that the building can be expanded in 10- or 20,000-square-foot increments, so it’s really flexible.” The goal is to reduce the time needed to build and reduce jurisdictional hurdles.
Another great example of how Charlotte County is employing its resources to spark growth is seen in its partnership with Western Michigan University (WMU). After many years of discussion, WMU has agreed to expand its College of Aviation, in addition to fifteen other programs, to Charlotte County.
WMU addressed the needs of the county with programs that include health and human services, engineering, environmental sciences. and supply chain management. The programs are highly relevant to the needs of area employers and show promise for workforce development.
“We spent a lot of time talking with WMU about our economic development goals and the types of industries that we want to attract, the types of services that we have here, and we engaged our business leadership,” said Pears.
The College of Aviation will support the Punta Gorda Airport, where daily traffic counts exceed 40,000, and the Punta Gorda Interstate Park, which has 4,300-acres of development-ready land within a foreign trade zone (FTZ) designated area.
“We were wise enough in planning for growth that we set aside about 4,000 acres around the airport and said there shall be no residential development in the area; this area is set aside for business attraction purposes, and it has phenomenal interstate access,” stated Pears.
Several other developments are currently taking place. Murdock Village Community Redevelopment Agency was an idea that originated in the 1960s. The county purchased land totaling 877 acres, but development didn’t take place for decades, due to environmental challenges and the recession in the late 2000s.
“We have a proposal from Private Equity Group, a Southwest Florida developer, to develop half of that property into a mixed-use development, and that is a very exciting opportunity for us. It’s centered around one of our up-and-coming county facilities.”
“We’re developing a recreation center and an Olympic-caliber and size aquatic center, situated adjacent to the Charlotte Sports Park, which is the winter home of the Tampa Bay Rays for spring training,” she added. This could be a significant attraction for sports fans from far and wide making Charlotte County an even more appealing destination.
Babcock Ranch is another development taking place. Led by Sid Kitson and Partners, this project is a decade in the making. Kitson had a vision to create an off-the-grid community featuring technology.
“It’s the first solar city,” Pears said. “In partnership, they are building a 450-acre, 74.5 megawatt, solar farm to power Babcock Ranch, which will include about 19,000 residential units and several million square feet of office and commercial space. It just got approval from the public schools to construct and operate a K through 8 charter school.”
Babcock Ranch will have its own school, its own fire services and will ultimately function as a town within the eastern part of Charlotte County. “It’s something that’s very different than what you see happening across the country today, so we’re very excited and happy to partner with Sid Kitson and Kitson and Partners on Babcock Ranch.”
Over the last year and a half, the county has also been aided by the investment being made by Cheney Bros. The regional restaurant and food distribution company was looking for a location in Southwest Florida and chose to call Charlotte County home.
“We were able to find the land, build the road, install the infrastructure for that project so they could invest $35 million in building a new state-of-the-art facility. They had committed to creating 380 jobs within five years, and they hit that goal within eighteen months of opening their doors.” It is now looking to add a 100,000 square foot expansion to the 360,000 square foot facility.
Each of these investments proves that a great deal of opportunity exists in Charlotte County and business owners and residents are taking full advantage of the potential to greatly improve the already vibrant quality of life in the community.
The county will develop its workforce and the economic foundation of the county in the future to offer an unmatched quality of life. “We will continue developing and building upon the assets that we have here in Charlotte County to make us an industry leader and show how even a small community of 173,000 can really be effective in determining what the future holds,” Pears concluded.
Charlotte County has created a fantastic atmosphere for strategic economic growth to position itself as an economic leader and wonderful place to live.