As a child, Erin Silk first visited Sarasota on vacation. Her family for generations held love for the Gulf Coast, an affection she certainly shares. “My grandfather used to tell a story that the Silks came to Sarasota first on horse and buggy,” she recalls. “Whether or not that's true, I don't know, but we still have our great-grandmother's house in Sarasota.” Now it falls on Silk to convince the business world this region serves more than tourists. As the new president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, she leads efforts to recruit and retain companies and to help them expand. We spoke with the new executive about how to keep the economy burning as white hot as Siesta Key’s sands.

You joined the EDC in 2019. What immediate change in vision are you going to bring?  ERIN SILK: I want to challenge us to assess everything we're doing. Is it just something that we're doing because we've always done it? I want us to look at the businesses we're attracting in an innovative way. We have developed this brand of Sarasota County now. It is a really serious place for business. It's where businesses want to be and we're going to be out there aggressively marketing to companies that we want to come be a part of our community. And we want to make sure the companies that are coming here are good community members hiring students out of our higher education, creating good jobs for our local community and participating here. 

Why did you decide to pursue an economic development career here? SILK: This is the place that I would want to work. Some communities, maybe they lost industry and they're trying to reinvent themselves or rehabilitate sites almost on the defensive. Here, we get to be on the proactive. It's just such a fantastic community where people want to be. CEOs are attracted here and there's expertise from all over the world within our business community. There's just so much opportunity and positive energy.

When the EDC started, there was concern whether we didn't have a diverse economy. It was all development and tourism. Is that still a problem in your eyes? What needs to be done to address that? SILK: We keep a close eye on what the mix is between industries. You're right, when we look at our top industries, we're looking at healthcare, tourism, hospitality and construction. They're all extremely important parts of our economy and we support them. But when you are more reliant in just certain industries, it creates vulnerability within your economy. We see that during red tide. We see it during major pandemics, hurricanes. If all of our jobs are in one industry, then it really leaves us vulnerable. Economic development is really place-based. When we look at what economic development means to the EDC, it means helping to diversify that economy and create resiliency for our community.

What needs to happen to spur that diversification? SILK: The positive news is there's a lot of demand. What we've experienced is a really tight industrial and commercial market. We are at less than 1% vacancy rate right now, which is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, in the state of Florida. In order to diversify our economy, we have to have more places for companies to land. When we're talking to a company, say they're out of Canada and they're looking, they've identified, "Hey, we want to make an expansion. We'd identified Southwest Florida. Tell us about Sarasota County," that site has got to be ready for them to put a shovel on the ground and start building within six months, or it's got to be a site that, if they're leasing, is ready to go. Whether it's new companies coming here or existing companies growing, that's going to be their biggest initial obstacle.

How do we address that? SILK: The Sarasota County government created a new overlay district called a business park, which really expanded the opportunities for rezoning certain properties. Additionally, there's a lot of opportunity within the city of North Port. They are doing great work to get about a thousand acres to that shovel-ready position, extending utilities out to Toledo Blade and Sumter, and that's going to open up job creating sites, whether that's an office user or advanced manufacturing or technology. But for us, economic development is a long-term strategy. It's looking at changes that are going to occur over the next five or 10 years and how can we make sure that the needs of the diversified industries are communicated to our leaders, who are making the decisions and making those land use plans.

I know you can’t name specific companies, but how many businesses are in talks to relocate to or expand in Sarasota County? SILK: Right now we have 80 companies that we're working with—about 30 local expansions and then 50 out-of-market companies who are looking at doing some kind of relocation or expansion into our market. I see quite a few different things driving it. One is our new residents and the population growth we're experiencing in our region. Because of our growing residential population, there are services like food logistics companies who serve our residents. They need sites here. At the same time, we've experienced a renaissance of entrepreneurial technology. We have met a cool kind of entrepreneur that had successful ventures before and successfully did an exit, maybe two, and they moved to our area with their families and decided this is a place where they personally want to live. Then they decide, "Hey, this would be a great place to launch my next endeavor." A lot of times when we're meeting an entrepreneur, we are welcoming them to the community and then we're asking, "Who have you connected with? What's your next steps?" There isn't a great roadmap for them. There isn't a great collection of other tech companies in town. We see a lot of opportunity to diversify our market through supporting the entrepreneurs that have relocated here and helping to fill the gaps.

The conversation around incentives changed a lot in the last decade. Is Florida competitive with those?  SILK: We hear incentives are important, but they're not the most important things to companies. I hear constantly, it’s certainly not a cash incentive, but it's an incentive for us to be here. If you're working with our organization, you have accessibility and assistance through governmental processes. Any kind of services within our community, we'll be able to connect them. If you're not finding the site you need, we can connect your team to opportunities in the future that aren't on the market right now. Then when a company is here, they're experiencing a true sense of collaboration. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but we hear companies choose Sarasota County rather than Miami or Orlando because (those communities are) so big, they get lost within the ecosystem. When a company lands here, they are entering into a community of true business collaboration. That means a lot. Companies could land anywhere in the world, but they're choosing communities where they feel welcome, where they feel supported, where they feel safe. That's the reputation Sarasota County has developed.

You have discussed the importance of public-private partnerships. There’s been friction in recent history between prior EDC leaders and county officials. How do you keep relationships positive? SILK: I told the county commission last time I was in front of them, we're not just going to be a public-private partnership in name but in action as well.  We at the EDC are extremely committed. For me, it is a real, strategic, competitive advantage for our community as we're attracting and keeping companies. I really can't speak to things that happened before my time with the EDC or my leadership, but we're going to be intentional, we're going to be thoughtful and we're going to be good communicators. I have seen a change in energy and enthusiasm. I truly believe that there is a lot of buy-in into the mission of the EDC. That's why the EDC has been around so long. At our board meetings, we have elected officials from all the municipalities and with a county commissioner. (County Commission Chair Ron) Cutsinger serves right now. Our higher education partners are talking about how together we're going to continue to push forward. I can assure you the energy is high right now.

You follow Lisa Krouse, who worked to improve the relationships. What did you learn from her? SILK: Lisa leads in such a people-centric way. We certainly talk a lot about business and about zoning and government, but at the end of the day, it truly is all about people. Our community members, the families that we're serving, the children of our community, finding opportunity here if they want to stay here, Lisa led with the heart. She brought a softness to the position. That's what I most admired about her and that's what I most took from her. Over the span of her being with us two years, you saw how much that moved the organization forward.

How do you feel about the workforce development efforts that we have in our local college infrastructure? SILK: It's important that we all continue to stay engaged with each other. The things State College of Florida is doing with 26 West, their entrepreneur center, are innovative. They're offering paths and support for individuals who are looking for certificate programs rather than four-year programs. We're willing to do things that are innovative here. Another thing SCF did was during COVID, a company came to us called Fleet Force, a CDL (commercial driver’s license) training school. No other college had this type of setup. SCF had parking lots that were underutilized during COVID. Now the governor has put career training dollars behind CDL training and they're replicating that model over 10 or 12 other state colleges around Florida. It might be a little surprising that the largest employer of Ringling College students here is an architecture firm. That's because the students coming out of our schools embed themselves in every industry across Sarasota County. It might be outside of what we think of as graphic design or animation. But the creative capital is embedded in all industry in Sarasota County. Regardless if you're a manufacturer or you're a tech firm or you're a corporate headquarters or you're financial professional services, you are going to be better off if you have creative individuals on your team.