Spotlight On: Steven Abrams, Executive Director, South Florida Regional Transportation Authority/Tri-Rail

By Max Crampton-Thomas


2 min read August 2019 — Transportation is a hot topic issue throughout South Florida, and as the population in the region continues to grow so do the challenges. While the roads seemingly become more congested every week, there is a significant emphasis on using other forms of transit. For 30 years, Tri-Rail has been one of the leading alternative forms of transit for visitors and residents of South Florida alike. Invest: Greater Fort Lauderdale recently had the chance to sit down and speak with Steven Abrams, the Executive Director for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, which is the governing body that operates and oversees Tri-Rail. Abrams discussed Tri-Rail’s longevity in the South Florida Community, how it is working in tandem with Virgin Trains USA (formerly Brightline), the ways in which it is using technology to improve operations and what is contributing to the steady uptick in ridership.

What has contributed to Tri-Rail’s longevity in the South Florida community? 

This year is Tri-Rail’s 30th anniversary. Tri-Rail started as a traffic mitigation project along I-95 while 95 was being widened, but it was supposed to be a stop-gap until the completion of the project. Thirty years later, it is still thriving. Over those 30 years, we have improved our service, added more trains, added weekend and holiday service and added connections to the area’s three airports. We are a transportation system that has become popular over time and we have embedded ourselves in the tri-county area.

How are you working with Virgin Trains USA to improve rail transportation in the community? 

We have a collaborative relationship with Brightline, and we anticipate that it will only be a benefit to both services. Brightline is geared more toward the tourism population, whereas Tri-Rail transports 15,000 riders a day to work and school. Our riders mainly consist of clerical workers, blue-collar workers, construction workers and students. It is a different market than Brightline, but we work very closely together and hope to be able to feed each other’s passengers into our system. We are far along on plans to enter Brightline’s downtown Miami station. The platform has been constructed, and we are just waiting on the approval for its Positive Train Control system. Positive Train Control is a safety system that was mandated by the federal government for all railroads in the country. Once Brightline’s system has been certified, we can apply to be a tenant on its system and continue our existing service and extend up to about half of our trains into downtown Miami. We are hopeful that this will occur in the near future.

How is Tri-Rail using new technology to improve operations and the safety of its passengers?

We are installing a Positive Train Control system that adds an extra level of safety on what is already a safe system. The National Safety Council did a survey and concluded that you are more likely to die of radiation or from a cataclysmic storm than you are being a passenger on a train. The Positive Train Control system is required by the federal government, and we anticipate that it will add that extra measure of safety in terms of avoiding oncoming collisions. If the train is going too fast, the system will automatically slow it down. We do not have many curves on our system, so this is probably more of a benefit for trains up north where there are hills and curves. Nonetheless, we will be able to stop the train should it exceed speed limits.

What factors are behind the steady increase in Tri-Rail’s ridership? 

There are three reasons and two are, in a way, related. South Florida is a tourist and service-related economy, and these individuals, like waiters or construction workers, cannot work from their homes. We have people coming from all over the world who are used to rail transportation in their countries, and they are feeding into our system. Our roads are also just becoming so congested. It used to be that our ridership would principally, and almost exclusively, fluctuate with gas prices, but now that  gas prices are stable and dropping, we still have people riding our system because ultimately it is the overabundance of cars on the road that are urging them to seek alternative transportation.


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Spotlight On: Brian Kornfeld, President and Co-Founder, Synapse

Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas

2 min read August 2019 — The growth of Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a testament to the boom of innovation, collaboration and economic rise that the region is experiencing. The key to keeping this growth sustainable comes down to multiple factors, including attracting more venture capital into the region, improving connectivity between startups and the continuous marketing of Tampa Bay as the place to start a business. One of the leading forces behind Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial ecosystem is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization known as Synapse. Invest: Tampa Bay recently sat down with President and Co-Founder of Synapse Brian Kornfeld to discuss how the organization is attracting and retaining quality talent, how their program Synapse Connect will help to improve connectivity between entrepreneurs, the key to attracting more venture capital to Tampa Bay and the challenges still facing the startup community.

How is Synapse working to help retain quality talent in the Tampa Bay workforce ecosystem?

Talent is one of the most important focus areas for Synapse because talent attraction and retention in Florida are vital to our future. Synapse helps to tell the top stories of growth and success on a statewide and national level. This helps to ensure people know about all the great things happening in Tampa Bay. We enable connections between talent, startups, and companies through our Synapse Summit, Synapse Challenges, and the Synapse Connect digital platform. By enabling the right stories and the right connections to take place, people can truly see a bright future in Tampa Bay.

How is Synapse Connect helping to connect entrepreneurs and bring their ideas to life?

When we first started Synapse, the idea was this platform that has become Synapse Connect. The thought of running a conference was not even on our radar, so it is interesting that our conference is what we are now best known for while Connect is still up and coming. The goal is that in the future Synapse Connect will be at the center of Florida’s innovation community. It will be the logical first step when somebody joins the innovation community, so they can find what they need or share what they have. We feel it will be vital because the geographic regions in Florida are so separate. If we can shrink the state virtually than we can help people find the right resources no matter where they may be physically located. 

What is the key to attracting venture capital to Tampa Bay?

Steve Case, founder of AOL, noted that 75% of venture capital is spent in San Francisco, New York, and Boston. That is three markets receiving 75% of all available venture capital in this country, while the state of Florida only sees 3% of all venture capital. One of the main reasons we do not see more venture capital across the state is because we do not have the volume and critical mass of startups quite yet. This will change in Florida as we are starting to see more people rapidly getting into the startup and innovation worlds. As more quality companies build and grow, we will see more money put to work.  Organizations like Florida Funders are doing a great job as the leading edge and thinking differently on investing, helping to enable and encourage more of the state’s accredited investors to get involved.

What is the most notable challenge facing the startup and entrepreneurial community in Tampa Bay?

Part of the challenge with the startup community in Tampa Bay is trying to find our identity. We are pretty wide in terms of the different industries that we are trying to service, but we need to focus our efforts on being great in just a couple areas. This will allow us to be an inch wide and a mile deep. We have core leading industries, such as cybersecurity, digital health, and financial tech. We need to continue to play to our strengths. Startup companies also need to be educated on how to build for a customer’s needs, to solve a problem and learn how to create a product better than their competitors. After these companies have mastered this, then they can learn how to grow and scale. 


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Spotlight On: Roxana Scaffidi, CEO and Owner, Florida Accounting & Advisers

By Max Crampton-Thomas


2 min read August 2019 — There are multiple factors that attract people to Florida, including wonderful weather, a growing economy, an ecosystem that is conducive to successful businesses and perhaps most attractive, the tax climate. After the passage of the sweeping tax reform known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, the tax climate in Florida only became more attractive to both people and businesses looking to relocate. Now, almost a year and a half since the reform has been in effect, there is a greater need for proficient accountants and financial professionals to help navigate this legislation. Invest: Palm Beach spoke with Roxana Scaffidi, CEO and owner of Florida Accounting & Advisers about how the new tax code is affecting people’s lives, the key to success within the accounting and financial world, and how she created a successful business in Palm Beach County. 

How have you seen the tax reform affect people’s lifestyle? 

The new tax code has really changed people’s lives, and we are now seeing certain individuals immigrating to Florida because of the business opportunities that the state offers and its quality of life. High income tax states include New York, California and Massachusetts, and those are the people coming here. To qualify for Florida’s tax benefits you must be a legal resident here, which means six months and one day of residency. Under the new tax laws, individuals are capped at $10,000 as a deduction for their state income taxes, personal property taxes and their sales tax. In addition, if they have a large mortgage on their house, the new tax code only allows them to deduct interest up to $750,000.


What is the key to success in this industry? 

The key in this industry is to be proactive rather than reactive. We observe what’s going on in the world today with the national and world economies. Everything is changing and as it changes you start to see more vacancies in areas where there used to be none. This is demonstrated with how Amazon has essentially killed a lot of the big-chain retail stores. To succeed in today’s market you need to stay on top of emerging trends and you can’t be afraid to point out these things.


To what do you credit the success of your business in Palm Beach County? 

When I started this company I knew that to run a successful business I needed to not only have a great product but also to always remain community-minded. As the 2018 Small Business of the Year recipients, I realized quickly that Boca Raton is very business and community-minded, so it was the perfect place to set up my business. I set out to build this business based on my values, knowing that those same values would translate to trust among our clients. In this business there is nothing more important than having your clients’ full support and trust.


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Spotlight On: Hala Sandridge, Shareholder and Tampa Co-Office Head, Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney PC

Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas

2 min read August 2019 — Demand in most job sectors ebbs and flows with the economy. One sector that seemingly goes against this narrative and remains relatively consistent is the legal industry. As a new generation makes its way into the field, law offices are having to prepare for the next wave of legal professionals. Invest: Tampa Bay recently spoke with Hala Sandridge, shareholder and Tampa co-office head for Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney PC. She spoke about her firm’s approach to talent retention and attraction, the red-hot market for young legal talent and what the next year will hold for the legal sector in Tampa Bay.

How is the firm preparing for the next generation of legal professionals? 

Every company has to manage their external and internal sustainability, with a focus on the next generation of the workforce to optimize for long-term success. We at Buchanan are continuously building that next generation of attorneys who are going to continue the work of the senior leaders after they retire. We have strong succession plans in place as well as various programs that help those who are not yet at the partner level to become stronger in their practice, better at business development and immersed in the business of our clients.


I have noticed that many law firms do not plan for the future workforce and for the retirement of their more senior partners. It is crucial for business continuity to have attorneys trained and ready to pick up responsibilities and relationships. The next generation needs to be ready to sustain the growth that the company has accomplished and continue to take advantage of this market. When our attorneys are near retirement age, we have a conversation with them to make a plan for their retirement. We require our attorneys to take on these young people and integrate them with their clients so that the relationship continues smoothly after they have left. 

What is the state of the job market for law students nearing graduation? 

The job market for law students has seen a bit of fluctuation over the past several years and right now there are many opportunities for fresh law school graduates. Three years ago, we were not hiring too many law students shortly after graduation, but that has changed. We have hired a number of past summer associates upon their graduation and continue to seek out talented graduates. I cannot say enough great things about this next generation. They have their heads on straight, are incredibly goal-oriented and are willing to learn. 

What does the next year look like for Tampa Bay’s legal sector? 

I believe that the market is going to stay hot for the next year. However, in the event that there is an economic slowdown, many of us in the legal sector, including Buchanan will continue to do well as we thrive in a down market too. As a successful law firm we must stay nimble, so when the market changes we are prepared. For example, we have a nationally-recognized bankruptcy group whose work tends to increase during economic downturns, while other attorneys who typically perform transactional work use their market knowledge to advise on bankruptcy work. The key for any successful law firm is to diversify your staff and not have all your eggs in one basket.



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Spotlight On: Drew Melville, Real Estate and Land Use Attorney, Melville Law, P.A.

By Max Crampton-Thomas


2 min read August 2019 — South Florida’s economic boom has resulted in increased migration to the area, a rise in small businesses and most significantly, an abundance of real estate and transit development projects. While these development projects are a positive sign that the economy is thriving, they are also associated with a litany of legal paperwork, proceedings and barriers as well as the negative side effects for the environment in South Florida. Invest: Greater Fort Lauderdale recently spoke with Drew Melville, real estate and land use attorney for Melville Law, P.A. He spoke about some of the more negative side effects from this increased development in South Florida, how Broward County should be an example in regards to environmental sustainability and his outlook for the next year given the region’s growth.

What has been one of the most significant negative effects of increased development in South Florida? 

Our mission statement has always been about redeveloping the urban corridors and preserving rural and agricultural lands in Florida, which are dwindling. We are losing farmers, and wilderness land as well. The whole concept of putting highways in places where there is nothing but agricultural land is terrible and only caters to specific groups of large landowners. This issue is so much bigger than the interests of a couple of large, rural landowners, and I am hoping Florida moves past the never-ending sprawl development. 

How should Broward County be viewed in regards to environmental sustainability? 

The biggest challenge for South Florida is environmental sustainability. Many people from all over the world are investing in this high-growth area, and we have to hope that they are not only investing in developing here but also in the sustainability and resilience of the area. Broward is very forward thinking and environmentally conscious, and the county should be looked to as an example for some of these areas that are developing without regard to the effect they are having on the environment. 

What is your outlook for Broward County over the next year? 

“Fort Lauderdale is still growing, and there are a ton of projects in the approval process. The city is also growing while preserving its history and keeping its historic buildings intact, which is great for the community and our identity. There are also a lot of towns around Broward that have Opportunity Zones and they are trying to capitalize on them now. I’d like to see more development along the Dixie corridor in Pompano and Deerfield. It would also be great to see more food operators in areas that are considered “food deserts,” which is defined as more than a mile stretch without an option for healthy food.”



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Spotlight on: Kenneth Lawrence Jr., Commissioner, Montgomery County

Writer: Yolanda Rivas

2 min read AUGUST 2019 — Montgomery County is the third-most populous county in Pennsylvania and the state’s the No.1 county for manufacturing. With an extensive trail network, the largest indoor mall in the country, a growing population and diverse economy, Montco presents unique opportunities for businesses among several industries. Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence recently spoke with Invest: about the county’s efforts to grow its economy, attract businesses and embrace sustainability.

What were some highlights for Montgomery County over the last 12 to 18 months?

Montgomery County had its AAA bond status restored by Moody’s. We are working hard on our transportation and infrastructure, repairing our roads and bridges, and making sure these are in good, working condition. We implemented a parental leave policy for our employees. The new policy is not gender-specific and employees can get six weeks off for the birth, adoption or guardianship of a child. We believe that will spur area companies to implement similar initiatives. Montgomery County has the best trail network in the region. We have over 90 miles of trails, including the Schuylkill River Trail, which is the most popular trail in the region, and we are working on expansion, improvements and new connections for many of our trails.

What are some business opportunities unique to Montgomery County, in relation to other counties in the region?

Montgomery County is the No. 1 county in Pennsylvania for manufacturing. We have more manufacturing jobs than any of the 67 counties in the state. There are numerous opportunities in manufacturing, especially in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. For example, Thomas Jefferson University recently opened the Jefferson Institute for Bioprocessing in Lower Gwynedd, which is a specialized education and training institute for biopharmaceutical processing. Upper Merion is the third-largest employment hub in this region, following Center City and University City. We are working with SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) on King of Prussia Rail to connect University City, Center City, and Upper Merion with public transportation. This is a 10-year project, but we are working very hard to connect the three major employment hubs in the region.

The pharma and healthcare sectors keep growing in the county. Tourism in Montgomery County is a $1.2 billion industry. Valley Forge National Historical Park gets over 2 million visitors a year. King of Prussia Mall is the largest shopping mall on the East Coast.

What is the county doing to develop sustainable operations?

Sustainability is very important for us as a county government and we want to take a leadership role. We recently announced a wind energy purchase that will power all of the county’s electrical accounts. The commissioners also made a commitment to transition to

renewable energy for heating all county-owned buildings and powering all county-owned vehicles by 2050. Another major project is a new justice center, which is part of six individual construction projects in downtown Norristown to address service, operational and energy inefficiencies and modernize county buildings for the future. We are taking every step possible to make sure that sustainability is a major part of that project so that we’re not increasing our energy footprint. We are also working with our municipalities across the county to explore options for sustainability.


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Montgomery County: 




Spotlight On: Mayor Sandra Bradbury, City of Pinellas Park

Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas

2 min read August 2019 — The unprecedented economic growth the Tampa Bay MSA, including Pinellas County, is enjoying comes with both benefits and challenges. At the very center of Pinellas County is it’s fourth largest city, Pinellas Park. Invest: Tampa Bay recently spoke with Mayor of Pinellas Park Sandra Bradbury. She discussed how the city is handling the region’s growth, its focus on remaining economically and environmentally sustainable, and her outlook for the next year.




What efforts are being made to encourage environmental sustainability in the city? 

In a partnership with the Wounded Warriors Abilities Ranch, we just started development on a new park called Lurie Park. This park is going to be completely accessible for all handicapped people, from children to the elderly, and will be geared toward our veterans. We also just purchased a four-acre property that was a horse stable, which we are in the process of converting to a farm. It is an extension of the existing Helen Howarth Park. Our goal is to work with the U.S.-based network of youth organizations 4-H and bring students to the farm to teach them how to sustainably raise and grow their own food.

How are you supporting local business growth? 

Businesses come to us all the time because we have a relatively large amount of commercial area that’s available for development. The city council and voter referendum created a package of incentives that we could use to retain businesses that want to grow and expand. These incentives allow businesses the flexibility to move offices or add square footage to their buildings. We are one of the few places that has this ability. It is within our ordinances to allow our economic development manager and her team to offer incentives to local businesses, which revolves around how much they are growing and how many employees they will be hiring with the expansion. So far, city council has provided seven packages to different companies that have grown in Pinellas Park. 

What does the next year look like for Pinellas Park? 

We think the future is bright. We have a lot of businesses that are still looking at us as a place to expand into. Our position is unique because we are at the very center of the county. We are also one of the few cities that still has vacant land available, especially in our industrial area. This gives a business the opportunity to come here and develop their work space. With the economic growth in the region, our homes have gone up in value over the years, but overall the Pinellas Park area is still affordable. We have parks in the area, and our citizens assist in the conservation and revitalization of those parks as necessary. Overall, we feel extremely positive about the next year. 


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Spotlight On: Andrew Verzura, Principal, VCM Builders, Inc.

By Max Crampton-Thomas


2 min read August 2019 — The amount of construction in a region is almost always an effective gauge of how the local economy is doing. Broward County is among those regions that has become synonymous with an abundance of ongoing and future construction projects, which speaks volumes to its strong and growing economy. Invest: Greater Fort Lauderdale recently spoke with Andrew Verzura, Principal of VCM Builders, Inc, one of the construction companies benefiting from the strong market in Broward County. Verzura discussed trends in the market, how Broward County compares to other markets and what the future of the construction industry in Broward County may look like.

What trends are emerging in the renovation projects VCM is working on?

In construction, we have to constantly regroup because the market changes. In recent years, our company decided to focus on renovations. Some of the trends we are seeing call for cleaner designs because people want to get away from heavy woods and marble, which don’t hold up well. We are seeing more porcelain, lighter colors, fewer moldings and more technology-based demands. Most of these condo buildings that were built 15 years ago did not have the technology we have today, so I’m challenged in every condo building with elevator integration, security integration and package rooms. Millennials want the ability to run almost everything off their phones, and we have to try and meet that demand. 

How does Broward County compare with the other markets you work in? 

The difference with Broward County is that it’s a very small, close-knit community. You can meet the commissioners, public officials or the building official and they all remember you. They are extremely friendly to do business with because they have a set of rules and regulations they follow. Whenever we have issues, I can go speak with somebody. I would say that over the last 15 years, I’ve been able to work with the city to solve 95% of the problems we’ve had. People are coming here because the business environment is so friendly.

How have rising construction costs affected your business? 

Construction costs are very expensive, and they have not gone down. Compared to when we started building spec houses in 2013 to where we are now, construction costs are up 30%. Construction costs are deal breakers for a lot of projects that we are looking at because they just do not make financial sense. The banks are not going to finance projects when the numbers do not make sense and will not work. We have seen many of the large rental communities being funded by pension funds. Most of these projects, which are primarily funded by pension and real estate funds, have been looking for a 6% return.

How does the next year look for the construction industry in Broward County? 

My outlook for Broward is still very strong. There is competition but that is a good thing. I believe we will still see people buy properties here. We have a friendly environment for developing and a government that is pro development. As long as we have builders and developers continuing to focus on sensible building, then we should be in good shape for the next year. We have to be very careful and look at deals that make sense because there are a lot of inflated deals out there right now. People all think their property is worth so much money but in reality it is only worth as much as people are willing to pay for it. The market is leveling off, which is not a bad thing, and it will be interesting to see how the market accepts all the new rental buildings in downtown. 


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Spotlight On: Angelo Bianco, Managing Partner, Crocker Partners

By Max Crampton-Thomas


2 min read August 2019 — There are a multitude of reasons why people choose to relocate to Florida including a beneficial tax climate, ideal weather, and a bevy of real estate opportunities. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Palm Beach County, and developers of commercial real estate in the region are reaping the benefits. Invest: Palm Beach recently spoke with Angelo Bianco, Managing Partner for one of the premier owner-operator and developers of commercial real estate in the region, Crocker Partners, who also happen to be the largest office landlord in Florida. Mr Bianco discussed with Invest: the impact Crocker Partners has in Palm Beach County, benefits of practicing commercial real estate in the county and what is on the horizon for investment within commercial real estate.

What impact does Crocker Partners have in Palm Beach County and South Florida? 

In the state of Florida, we are currently the largest office landlord. In Boca Raton, we are the largest office owner. We own thirty percent of all the office space in Boca Raton. We usually buy assets that have something wrong; for example, they are often poorly occupied and haven’t been operated the way that we would at Crocker Partners. We will perform renovations, reposition the assets and find new tenants. Then we either sell or re-capitalize the project to someone who wants to own more stable, secure assets. 


What are some of the benefits of practicing commercial real estate in Palm Beach County?

The best part of real estate in Palm Beach County is that people want to be here. Every year, more people move here. Because of our tax policies, Florida is an attractive place for the wealthy, and they tend to gravitate towards certain areas such as Palm Beach County. It’s fantastic because whenever you’re in a place where a lot of people aspire to be, they require office buildings and homes, so in turn there’s demand for new construction. Then the economy expands; people need to have rentals, apartments, storage and stores. It’s a great place to invest because, from one peak of the market cycle to the next, there’s always growth here. 


What trends are on the horizon for commercial real estate investment and growth in Palm Beach County?

Office development should be muted in the coming year. The reason is that a good majority of those moving here are wealthier people; they don’t drive a lot of demand in office space as most of them have hedge funds or family offices that do not require a lot of space; plus it costs so much to build new office buildings. You will have some projects, but it’s not going to be like it was in the past when there would be a tremendous number of cranes in the sky. But when it comes to multi-family development, we will continue to see growth. There will be a lot more rentals than we have had in the past. The United States by large is turning into more of a rental market than it has been, which doesn’t mean that single family homes are gone; it just means that people are much more comfortable renting.


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