Spotlight On: Sharon Hillstrom, President & CEO, Bradenton Area EDC

Spotlight On: Sharon Hillstrom, President & CEO, Bradenton Area EDC

2022-07-14T08:23:38-04:00April 15th, 2021|Economy, Spotlight On, Tampa Bay|

Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas 

Sharon Hillstrom2 min read April 2021 In an interview with Invest:, President and CEO of the Bradenton Area EDC Sharon Hillstrom talked about how well positioned the Bradenton area is to meet the pent-up demand that will inevitably follow once the pandemic subsides. Toward these ends, she discussed the area’s travel convenience and what it is that makes western Florida a desirable place to bring a business. 

What were some highlights and takeaways for the EDC from 2020?

I think that for any economic development organization to be successful, you have to be extremely nimble so you can  pivot when necessary and do it seamlessly. In response to the pandemic, we did that very rapidly, especially on the business recruitment side. We switched to digital recruitment quickly, switched to digital tours and introduced virtual meetings. We were expecting to have a dry spell, but prospect inquiries increased significantly. We received a lot of interest from the Northeast, in particular, and the Midwest. I think the lockdowns were the tipping point for a lot of CEOs to start taking a hard look at Florida, considering the high taxes where they are compared to Florida. If there’s a silver lining to this pandemic, it’s that Florida’s appeal as a great business destination became very clear.

What sets the Bradenton area apart in the western Florida area?

We represent all nine communities in Manatee County, where Bradenton is the county seat. We are an amazing community with unique assets. One example is the sports performance industry, which is anchored by IMG Academy, the world-renowned sports, performance, and educational institution.  Sports performance is becoming a strong industry sector in our region and  sets us apart from everybody else. We also have a deepwater seaport – Port Manatee. It’s in a rural area with 5,000 acres of land to develop for port-related businesses. It’s within easy access of the interstate and has rail service. That area is prime for industrial development. We have an international airport. Southwest Airlines just started service here, and we have many direct flights operating out of Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ), something that our established companies asked for. 

What is the outlook for business travel, international and domestic, in the Bradenton area post-pandemic?

For our organization, we are staying in touch with our contacts internationally but I don’t think we will be traveling internationally for a while. I think we’re looking at maybe 2023, depending on the pandemic. We are developing an opportunity with the Netherlands related to sports performance and had hoped to host a group this spring, but that’s not going to happen with the pandemic still a concern. I think domestic business travel will pick up here much faster as the rate of vaccinations increases. We had an economist do a forecast for us and his expectation is that we could be near normal by the third quarter of this year. 

How did you structure your virtual Economic Forecast Event?

You prepare as best you can, try and think of every technical problem you can possibly have. Along with our presenting sponsor, Hancock Whitney Bank, we used the Zoom platform and structured a webinar format, including fielding questions sent in by the audience. We did a dry run a week before the event to try to anticipate any problems with the technology and format. Ultimately, it worked out well, partly because our speaker, Dr. Henry Fishkind, is adept at presenting via Zoom. 

What is the overall outlook for the Bradenton area for the next 12 to 18 months?
Robust. Based on everything we’ve seen during the pandemic, the area is going to continue to attract businesses. We intend to capitalize on this interest with the launch of a very aggressive digital marketing campaign focused on all the positive aspects of doing business in the Bradenton area.  So, I’m optimistic. I think that we are well-positioned as a community to address that pent-up demand by supplying the best opportunities to businesses that want a Florida location.

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