Downtown merchants have seen a strong tourist season, and they hope upcoming streetscape improvements to Main Street and less panhandling economy — will bode well for a brighter future.
“I applaud our city manager for what he is trying to do and our new chief of police for taking on the issues,” said Ron Kennedy, co-owner of Kennedy Studios, 1472 Main St.
Kennedy saw a 14% uptick in sales, attributed in part to a greater number of seasonal residents buying prints and frames.
“We had a good enough season that we will survive this summer,” Kennedy said. “For last three or four years, we weren’t sure we would make it through the summer.”
The gallery’s staff shrank over the past five years, from five full-time, including Kennedy and his wife, Debbie Mitchell, and one part-time employee down to Kennedy and his wife and one part-timer.
“We’re back to being a mom and pop the way we were 20 years ago,” Kennedy said.
But Kennedy said the past season, roughly from December to May, was probably the best for sales over the past three years. Popular items sold included driftwood carvings and a 6-foot-wide framed photograph of Sarasota’s skyline.
“That photo is in Cleveland, Indiana and New York,” Kennedy said. “Snowbirds will put in their office. It’s a piece of Sarasota.”
Georgia Court, owner of Bookstore1 Sarasota, 1359 Main St., said she saw an estimated 20% uptick in sales.
“We get a mixture of locals and tourists and snowbirds because of where we are located,” Court said.
Court is excited for the second phase of a $1.9 million downtown improvement project that will add wider, brick sidewalks to lower Main Street.
“I am so glad that finally got going,” Court said of the project. “It’s a pretty busy section of sidewalk, and widening it is going to really help.”
In addition to infrastructure improvements designed to make downtown a more walkable and pleasing place for shoppers and diners, the city may soon be considering some other programs to help new and existing small businesses thrive downtown.
One of those would be a storefront-improvement program that would give grants to downtown stores and businesses to renovate and improve their storefronts.
A similar program in Greenville, S.C., was popular when it was implemented in 2002. The city ran out of its $140,000 funding for the program the first year, said Norman Gollub, Sarasota’s downtown economic development coordinator. The program continued and is still in effect.
Gollub, who took the EDC job in December, worked on economic development in Greenville from 1998 to 2004.
“It’s an economic-development tool,” said Gollub. “It helps improve the appearance of Main Street. It helps bring customers into an attractive storefront.”
Gollub, who spent six years in Greenville helping reduce commercial vacancies and bring in redevelopment downtown, said the storefront program is one way to help ensure existing and new businesses survive downtown. He points to Durham, N.C., where city officials say for every $1 in public funding spent on façade improvements, a business owner has invested an average of $10 to $12 to improve their business through upgrades.
One model would provide 20% of a storefront-improvement project’s cost, up to $10,000.
The storefront grants and loan program would likely be funded through the city’s Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) funding. Gollub will pitch the proposals to the Community Redevelopment Area Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the City Commission.
Other possible programs include expedited plan review and impact fee abatement for new businesses and a revolving loan fund for startups and existing businesses.
The city would loan funds to businesses, and, as the loans are repaid, the city would be able to replenish the program, Gollub said.
Recently, a retail business owner from England came to Sarasota and asked Gollub what kind of incentives the city offers to new businesses downtown to help set up interior space or install new signage.
Gollub had to tell the prospective business owner there will not be any such incentives.
“I think he is still going to go through with opening the business,” Gollub said, “but it makes a little bit of a difference if there are incentives.”
Such programs would give a boost to a downtown that is already attracting attention from prospective new businesses, Gollub said.
“Small businesses are the heartbeat of downtown Sarasota,” Gollub said.
On a warm day in May, a dozen customers sat at the tables outside C’est La Vie on Main Street, in the shade.
Come August, after a contractor wraps up the first phase of the city’s $1.9 million sidewalk improvement project, C’est La Vie will have 276 more square feet of new brick outdoor dining space, enough room to add four or five additional tables. That phase of work will cost $150,000.
“It will be an improvement,” says owner Christopher Coutelle said. “It will be better during season.”
In front of C’est La Vie, an area of unused asphalt adjacent to parking spaces will be replaced with brick pavers to match the existing sidewalk café area in front of the restaurant.
During the improvement project three parking spaces will be removed during the first phase of work, while more than 1,100 square feet of sidewalk and café space will be added to three sections of Main Street.
The project, initially slated to begin May 28, was delayed after the project’s engineer had to make structural changes to stormwater inlets. City officials decided to hold off on the project because they didn’t want construction work to interfere with the Fourth of July celebration and downtown boat parade, Richard Winder, Sarasota CIP project coordinator, wrote in an update email to city staff. Spectrum Underground will begin work again July 8.
In addition to C’est La Vie, the sidewalk and café area in front of Pastry Art will be expanded around existing trees. The café will get an additional 337 square feet of bricked outdoor space.
The area in front of Gator Club will see the largest increase in sidewalk space, with an additional 545 square feet of pavers. A seldom-used right-turn lane on Main Street will be abandoned to make way for the expanded sidewalk.
Mid-Main Street and sidewalks will remain open during construction. Outdoor seating, however, will be disrupted as the three bulbouts are constructed.