Downtown Sarasota merchants and city officials are discussing ways to host downtown events that won’t compete with the stores sitting along Main Street.
An events committee has met twice over the last two weeks to discuss a variety of concepts that will be vetted before the Sarasota City Commission at a special meeting May 4.
One suggestion on the table is not allowing food vendors to be a part of an arts and crafts permit. This would prevent the food vendors from competing with downtown restaurants that could otherwise serve festival patrons.
Downtown Sarasota Alliance Events Chairman Tony Souza said there needs to be more control over 96 events that are held in the city each year. Out of those 96 events, at least 42 of them are held on Main Street.
“The biggest complaint we have from store owners is we are closing Main Street too much during season for events,” Souza said. “This is a good opportunity to discuss what events work for some merchants and what events don’t work for others.”
Souza said a lot of events don’t necessarily contribute to downtown or events downtown.
“A lot of events bring in food vendors and put tents in front of restaurants,” Souza said. “We need a concrete event policy that makes sure the events we hold are contributing to the economic vitality of downtown.”
DSA President John Harshman, who is also a member of the committee, said the city just needs a clearer policy that might dictate where some events should go.
“Some events are wonderful, but some aren’t good for all merchants,” Harshman said. “Twenty-five years ago, this city begged for events downtown. Now they all do extremely well and we need to discuss which ones are good for downtown.”
The main problem, according to Harshman and Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown, is a saturation of events on Main Street, even though there are several other underutilized sites downtown, such as Payne Park.
“Everyone wants to be on Main Street and that’s the problem,” Brown said. “We have to identify other areas to hold events.”
Not everyone in the downtown area thinks the number of Main Street events is a problem.
At a Downtown Improvement District regular meeting earlier this month, Chairman Ernie Ritz expressed frustration with the committee.
“It seems like it’s the committee’s intent to stop closing Main Street and funneling events to other communities,” Ritz said.
Ritz, meanwhile, pointed out that permit holders who want to hold an event on Main Street need a supermajority of merchants (66%) to sign off on the event.
“Generally, more than 90% of the merchants sign off on events that close Main Street,” Ritz said. “This whole issue should be handed over to a group of merchants because I’m afraid this committee is messing with the livelihood of the merchants who want the events.”
Art to Walk On owner Eileen Hampshire said it’s a complex issue for all downtown merchants, not just those who have shops on Main Street.
“The trick, in my view, is to find the right number of events during season that doesn’t upset some merchants who get annoyed that Main Street is closed so much during the 16 weeks they count on to survive the rest of the entire year,” Hampshire said.
This week, the committee reached consensus that parades and run/walk events are positive, while downtown art and craft shows should not include food vendors, which would give Main Street restaurants a chance to cater to the crowds.
Brown also said he will inform commissioners that the cost of a permit should also include a person/city staff member to monitor the event, making sure the permit holders don’t start taking over parking spaces and areas of downtown that aren’t specified in their permit. It was also suggested the city offer premium prices for permits on Main Street.
Parking Manager Mark Lyons said the city or the permit monitoring person must do a better job of getting people into the parking garage or other parking lots that many event patrons aren’t aware exist.
“The main issue the commission must decide is whether or not the city should set parameters that might dictate whether or not some permit holders can either modify their event to make it fit city standards or if changes force them out altogether,” Brown said.