If Jesse Biter were a gambling man, he’d bet big on downtown Sarasota.
He has lived downtown for the past five years with his wife, Katie, and he just became a major landowner on Main Street. In December, Biter paid $4,075,000 for two buildings fronting 200 feet of mid-Main Street. The entrepreneur is already looking ahead to his next big investment downtown.
As for his Main Street plans, Biter will meet with city planners to talk about the possibilities of constructing a project in the future. But, for time being, he wants to keep the two buildings’ current tenants in place.
Biter is looking ahead to investment in other properties downtown and in the Rosemary District. The entrepreneur said residential units that working professionals can afford are needed downtown, and he is eyeing land on which he can build.
“We are looking at a few (parcels) that fit my vision for what Sarasota should be,” Biter said. “There will be some purchases in 2013.”
Downtown commercial real-estate broker John Harshman said Biter’s recent purchase on Main Street, and his future investment plans, are a good bet, but they are not a gamble.
“We saw a lot of that in the boom time — people gambling on real estate,” said Harshman, president of Harshman & Co. Inc.
Biter has shown he is a long-term investor and buying property right in the heart of downtown is an intelligent move as the country edges out of the recession, Harshman said.
Specifically, the “microcosm” of Main Street west of Orange Avenue has seen renewed interest over the last two years. As one example of the business demand for this part of downtown, Harshman points to the relocation of Reasons Shoes, which moved to Lemon Avenue, just off Main Street, after a long stay on St. Armands.
Harshman also points to the recent addition of retail such as Penzeys Spices, 1516 Main St., and Evelyn & Arthur, 1480 Main St., even as some businesses downtown closed, such as European Focus and Sarasota Hardware. Biter sees opportunity downtown, with restaurants, the bayfront and mom-and-pop shops.
There are challenges, too, and one of those hurdles is getting storeowners to stay open later on Main Street.
“I’ve heard a few argue that they can’t afford to,” Biter said. “I say they can’t afford not to. Downtown needs to be a place where people come eat and then stroll around at the shops after dinner.”
A future for Sarasota
Biter’s deal for the purchase of 1564 and 1560 Main St. closed Dec. 27.
It is the third major downtown property investment in the last two years for Biter, an entrepreneur who sold his $16 million auto-sales software firm in 2010.
Biter does not have specific current plans for the property at 1564 and 1560 Main St. — which currently houses eight storefronts for a total of 17,850 square feet of commercial space. He does not rule it out as the location for a mixed-use development, including some market-rate studio apartments or condo units.
But, under the city’s current zoning regulations, that kind of residential component would be impossible on the narrow parcel of land. The property is 200 feet along Main Street and 175 feet wide, and any project needs to include space for parking. It might make more sense, Biter said, to build a project with market-rate residential units on another parcel downtown.
That is why Biter said he is looking at several other parcels, some of which are currently on the market and some that are not listed for sale.
Current density rules only allow for larger units throughout downtown, Biter said, often requiring developers to build more expensive luxury condos that many of Sarasota’s professionals can’t afford.
Without an increase in the number of 25 units allowed per acre, the smallest residential units at Biter’s just-purchased Main Street parcel would be about 8,000 square feet, Biter estimates.
“Obviously that would not be affordable,” Biter said.
Biter will be meeting with city planners soon, and the topic of density limits will likely come up in discussions.
“One thing I am concerned about is the city’s density laws,” Biter said. “It forces a developer to build large units. (It) forces them to develop for only rich people who happen to be snowbirds.”
Biter said it’s important for Sarasota to have a strong year-round economy and a place for residents who work downtown to live.
He said there can be a balance between higher-end condo projects and a “denser, friendlier, affordable downtown that caters to younger professionals and artists.”
Although Biter moved to Sarasota 12 years ago, Katie Biter is a Sarasota native. The Biters have lived downtown since 2007, and they walk most places, including having dinner at Lan Restaurant, located in the building he just purchased at 1564 Main St.
“I am trying to create a future for Sarasota,” Biter said.