Gulf Coast Builders Exchange: 65 years of constructing community
There’s a story Gulf Coast Builders Exchange executive director Mary Dougherty likes to tell about the longstanding importance of the construction industry to the southwest Florida community:
“In 1973, there had been a discussion about a moratorium on construction,” she says. “Back then, in the days before ATM cards and direct deposit, everybody in the construction industry got together and said, ‘This week, we’re going to pay our employees in silver dollars.’” Turns out, there were a lot of silver dollars suddenly in circulation in southwest Florida, Dougherty explains. “Signs went up all over the county — grocery stores, etc. — that said, ‘No more silver dollars, please.’ Stores stopped accepting them because the impact they were having on their cash registers. But it shows how many people the construction industry employed, and the impact it had on the local economy.”
Indeed, the nonprofit Gulf Coast Builders Exchange has been representing southwest Florida’s commercial contracting industry since 1952, when 20 Sarasota contractors got together to try to help steer the community in the right direction. This year, as the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange celebrates its 65th anniversary, the organization has more than 400 business members continuing to serve southwest Florida’s past, present and future.
From the beginning, the organization’s impact was huge. In the 1950s, Gulf Coast Builders Exchange projects in partnership with the City of Sarasota included the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, as well as plan to free up an iconic bit of downtown Sarasota real estate. “City Hall used to be where Marina Jack is,” Dougherty explains. “That’s prime commercial property. So one of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange suggestions was to relocate City Hall so that the Bayfront area could be used commercially. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have Marina Jack.”
Over the years, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange has overseen a number of significant historical restorations, including Sarasota’s original 1920 pump station, Paul Rudolph’s famous Umbrella House on Lido Key and the Siesta Key Beach Pavilion. The organization was an early supporter of the creation of Nathan Benderson Park, which recently hosted the 2017 World Rowing Championships, as well as the new Atlanta Braves Spring Training facility currently under construction in North Port.
Rather than being the local chapter of a larger trade organization, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange is unique in its direct ties to the community. “This was really a local effort,” says Dougherty. “It was those 20 contractors that started the organization, and we remember our roots. Local businesses, members doing business with members, and being here regionally and locally — that’s a part of who we are.”
And the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange is investing in the future, too. In addition to its recent work with the county on the 10-year comprehensive plan and current work on
land development regulations and the unified development code, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange this year hosted a Construction Rodeo to introduce recent high school graduates to careers in the trade. “So they could stay here locally and have a good career, without incurring huge amounts of student debt,” says Dougherty. As a generation of construction workers nears retirement, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange is working to ensure that the legacy continues within our region.
“We have pictures out in the hallway of our past leaders, and when I look at that wall, I realize that they’re all leaders in the community, too,” says Dougherty. “It’s not just about their business, and it’s not just about the commercial contracting industry. They’re also leaders in the philanthropic community and leaders in the community in general. It’s a really proud legacy to be a part of.