The gleam of natural stone countertops has inspired a billion-dollar industry in the U.S.
It’s a business that is particularly active in Southwest Florida because residential construction is creating single-family homes and condo buildings here at a frantic pace. It’s also one of the most visible of the building trades because of the number of companies that display slabs of granite and other stone outside their stores along busy streets.
Sarasota and Manatee counties have almost 60 percent fewer housing units than Miami-Dade County but significantly more companies selling, fabricating and installing stone — particularly granite.
Alex Smith, co-owner with his wife, Cindy, of Designer Marble and Granite, has watched the industry explode here in the more than 30 years he’s had his business in Sarasota. In 1986, there were only three stone businesses, and people who wanted to buy stone home products often had to travel to Miami, if not farther, to find them; today, there are more than 30 in the two counties.
“We didn’t have all of these wholesalers in town where you could get the material here,” Smith said.
The inside of the Smiths’ shop at 1227 Mango Ave., just off 12th Street, gleams with hundreds of stone options for countertops and floors.
The business began as a designer hardware company. In 1994, the Smiths noticed a growing demand for granite. The company had the resources to add the business line to its offerings and continued to add to its capabilities.
“We do a lot of heavy commercial work, and a lot of other companies cannot handle what we do,” Cindy Smith said.
The business focuses on high-end contracting jobs. Most of its revenue comes from commercial projects and it fabricates material for a lot of high-rise apartments and condos.
Other Sarasota stone businesses say that about 80 percent of their customers are contractors and demand is consistently strong.
“We’ve never ever been a day without work,” said Tony Wier, facility manager of Signature Granite and Marble at 1235 N. Washington Blvd.
Signature Granite and Marble buys its stone from vendors in Sarasota and other parts of the state. It also has its own contracting business that fabricates and installs its products.
If the initial appeal of rich-looking natural stone was its expense and exclusivity, it has been an increase in its availability that has driven the industry’s growth.
“The material is more readily available and accessible to the masses,” said Cindy Smith of Designer Marble and Granite.
At least two developments have helped, said Kevin Cole, communications director for the International Surface Fabricators Association.
“Granite in the last 10 to 15 years — prices have dropped significantly due to advances in technology and also there are more sources for granite, like in Asia,” Cole said.
The development of computer-guided cutting equipment has allowed businesses to complete four to five times more work in a day, with much fewer errors, than the traditional work with saws by experienced craftsmen.
Granite, though more widely available now, is still expensive, especially compared with the Formica, or laminate, countertop materials common just a few years ago.
Countertops of natural stone such as granite or marble cost $45 to $200 per square foot.
That’s because it’s labor-intensive to carve it from the mountain quarries where it is found and is extremely heavy, bulky and expensive to ship overseas.
The top five importers of granite to the U.S. are Brazil, China, India, Italy and Spain, according to statistics from trade publication Stone World magazine.
The numbers show that the market continues to be strong, though perhaps slowing slightly.
In January alone, 100,709 tons of granite worth $65.8 million were imported to the U.S., according to the magazine, citing U.S. Commerce Department figures. In January 2017, 109,685 tons of granite worth $80.3 million were brought in.
The Sarasota-Manatee area’s housing market can easily support the expense, both because of the volume of homes being built and the prices of those homes.
So far in 2018, 2,246 building permits have been issued for single-family and multifamily units in Sarasota County alone, already surpassing the number from last year, according to data from Sarasota County.
“We’re booming,” said Jon Mast, chief executive officer of the Manatee-Sarasota Building Industry Association. “There is a lot of construction and a lot of permits being pulled in both counties for new construction as well as remodeling and renovation.”
And those homes are more expensive than in the rest of the state. Manatee County’s median value of owner-occupied homes is $11,900 more than Florida’s overall and Sarasota county’s median value is $30,000 more, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Demand for stone continues to be strong, even as other options — especially man-made materials — have proliferated and come down in price.
Mark Dalton, an interior designer for over 20 years in Sarasota and owner of the Chic on the Cheap design studio, says man-made quartz countertops are currently popular because they require less maintenance, but granite has not gone out of style.
“I look at granite like Ralph Lauren. It’s neither in nor out but it is a constant,” Dalton said.
Source:By Brianna Rodriguez Staff Writer