Last month, Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norm Gollub said it seemed unlikely that the security presence in the heart of the city could be increased anytime soon. Now, however, it appears the effort may have gained significant momentum.
At Tuesday’s Downtown Improvement District meeting, the group revisited the possibility of hiring additional security to monitor downtown. Gollub presented the DID board with two options — hiring an off-duty police officer to patrol the area for $33 an hour, or hiring a private security guard at $20 an hour.
The group expressed an interest in expanding the private security presence that already exists downtown, and agreed to invite Sarasota Security Patrol President Chad Ritchie to the next DID meeting to further discuss the issue. The revived downtown security discussions came on the heels of two moves made to increase the presence of private officers downtown.
Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and DID board member, said the merchants group voted last week to hire Sarasota Security Patrol to monitor the 1300, 1400 and 1500 blocks of Main Street for roughly seven hours per day. Although he said the group has limited funds, members agreed to spend between $2,000 and $3,000 per month to attempt to get security efforts started.
“We’re going to throw a couple of thousand dollars out there this month to see how it goes,” Soto said. “We want to get it started now.”
DID Chairman Ernie Ritz said he also hired the security group to patrol his property at the corner of Lemon Avenue and First Street. He said that one of his tenants, Salute restaurant, expressed an interest in breaking its lease because the homeless population was causing significant issues.
“I live on the corner of Lemon Avenue and First Street, in front of the shell fountain,” Ritz said. “My million-dollar view is looking at 12 to 20 homeless people every single day.”
Both Soto and Ritz called on the DID to help fund an expanded security presence to combat problems relating to vagrants in the area.
“Security is one of the issues the DID is supposed to take care of,” Ritz said. “I think the DID should put up some money for this security we need — they’re chasing our shoppers away.”
The group debated whether a private security firm, which would not have the ability to apprehend or cite people for breaking the law, was the best use of its money. Although members were interested in the service of off-duty officers, the price presented an issue for the cash-strapped group. Several DID board members said the most important thing was to have eyes on the streets to prevent issues from recurring.
“It may be less efficient, but I think their presence there is more of a deterrent than anything they do,” Kauffman said.
After some board members asked whether the security officers could work in conjunction with the Sarasota Police Department, Lt. Kevin Stiff said the department doesn’t have issues with private groups. Still, he warned, neither the security guards nor the police department could compel homeless people to move when no laws are being broken.
“If there’s no criminal activity, I can’t get out and tell people to leave the park because somebody doesn’t like their view,” Stiff said.
Soto said that, because the police department is preoccupied with more pressing issues, it was difficult for officers to catch individuals in the process of breaking certain laws — a prerequisite for apprehending people. With a private security group, however, their attention would be undivided.
“When we have somebody that’s panhandling outside, they can’t just sit there and stand there and watch them,” Soto said. “The security guard can stand there and make him uncomfortable.”
At the next DID meeting, the group will continue to discuss the scope of a potential security patrol. Gollub said he worked with Ritchie to develop some potential patrol schedules to complement ongoing downtown security efforts, including those Pineapple Square developer Butch Isaac has undertaken.
Gollub, who has taken the lead on the push for increased security downtown, said he thinks the private group can provide the service necessary to make downtown more attractive to visitors — and to cut down on illicit behavior.
“I do believe with the private security you do have that constant presence in that block,” Gollub said. “They’ll go where the activity is.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]