BY SHARON HILLSTROM

The community of Lakewood Ranch recently announced record-breaking sales of new homes during the first half of 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a quarter of sales in June happened virtually. The buyers didn’t even see the homes in person – only digitally.

The real estate industry has been quick to adapt its processes to the pandemic-induced changes, and so has the business of economic development.

At the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., we anticipated the challenges local businesses would face in recovering from hits sustained during this spring’s shutdown. We quickly compiled necessary resources and communicated helpful information, a process that continues today.

We also took a hard look at our business development work: how we reach out to recruit businesses to locate in Manatee County and bring new, well-paying jobs to the community. Would businesses even be looking to move in the current economic climate? How would we reach them if we couldn’t travel? How would we show them our community’s assets if they couldn’t travel?

I am pleased to report that while traditional business recruitment activities were interrupted by the pandemic, the EDC’s modified business recruitment strategy is delivering results, which bodes well for our community.

The rate of qualified lead generation during COVID-19 is approaching that of the period before the pandemic. Businesses in the Midwest and Northeast, in particular, are looking at their options for locating in a state with lower costs of doing business, but with a great quality of life. These same regions are driving much of the residential real estate market in our area, including the sales surge in Lakewood Ranch.

More than half of the leads we’re working are manufacturing-related businesses, which are looking for production facilities in the 30,000-square-foot range. The commercial office users we are talking to may actually need more space than they might have before COVID-19, due to safe distancing requirements for their employees.

Once we understand a company’s facility requirements, we would typically invite them for a visit. Now, however, we host those visits virtually.

Our GIS-based web platform allows prospects to see aerial and street views of actual sites. We can show them existing buildings and place the footprint of a building on vacant land to show how the site could be configured for the end-user. We can also manipulate the view to show a 360-degree perspective.

We have conducted a handful of these virtual visits since March, and so far, two of those companies plan to locate in Manatee County.

Economic development takes time. Businesses don’t decide to move and invest millions in a new location without a great deal of planning and analysis. From first contact to a commitment can require five years or more.

In the COVID-19 age, however, we’re seeing businesses with a greater sense of urgency to reduce costs and locate where executives and employees want to live. Great communities like Manatee County can benefit from that trend, and the EDC is deploying new tactics and tools to position our community at the top of the list.

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