Property owners near Port Manatee and state legislators are taking note of a unique and timely economic stimulus package crafted by Manatee County Port Authority Chairman Joe McClash.

Since last October, McClash has been meeting with landowners, leading maritime experts and port staff to refine an idea he calls the Port Manatee Encouragement Zone. On March 19, 2008, seven large landowners signed a “Declaration of Interest,” urging McClash to move the concept forward.

“It’s a simple idea,” McClash explained, who also sits as an at-large commissioner in Manatee County. “Allow property owners surrounding the port the option of developing their land with similar rights as if Port Manatee owned the land.”

Zone supporters say it will attract jobs and industry to Manatee County and to the port.

The proposal offers incentives to landowners within the vicinity of Port Manatee to develop their properties in ways benefiting Florida’s economy, Manatee County and the port. The idea provides participating property owners local impact fee exemptions, accelerated county permitting privileges, inclusion within Port Manatee’s Development of Regional Impact (DRI) exemption and options for admission into the port’s Foreign Trade Zone and for collaborative marketing initiatives.

McClash sees the proposal as a way out of a regional economic slow down, heavily impacted by the effects of declining home starts.

John Green, principal of Curiosity Creek – a proposed 788-acre housing development in close proximity to the port – sees the sense in McClash’s concept.

“This is a good solution to a difficult economic circumstance,” Green said. “In my case, I have the option of continuing with my current development plans – which may be delayed for years due to the economy – or focus on commercial opportunities related to the port. It’s my choice.”

State Representative Ronald Reagan, R-Bradenton, intends to support Port Manatee Encouragement Zone legislation in Tallahassee.

“This is the right thing to do,” Reagan said. “The encouragement zone concept allows landowners the voluntary option of participating in Port Manatee’s success, while ultimately attracting new industry and jobs to Manatee County. This is what government should be doing.”

HRK Holdings LLC owns 676 acres directly east of Port Manatee on US 41. HRK purchased the bankrupt site of the old Piney Point phosphate facility in 2006.

“Our development model focuses primarily on attracting customers to Port Manatee,” according to HRK’s Art Roth. “The encouragement zone allows us the flexibility to react quickly to commercial opportunities, which otherwise might take years to permit and build. We need this.”

Both Roth and Green signed the encouragement zone’s “Declaration of Interest.”

Excitement about the zone is fueled by optimism related to the on-going expansion of the Panama Canal.

“Port Manatee is the closest deepwater port to the Panama Canal and we stand to benefit greatly from the canal’s expansion, said McClash. “The Port’s new container crane has put Port Manatee into the 21st century.”