Greenville, S.C., has already accomplished many of the goals Sarasota has for its downtown — in part through what Forrest Shaw, owner of Pastry Art on Main Street, called “aggressive goal setting.”
Downtown advocates frequently reference Greenville when they talk about what they want downtown Sarasota to be like.
And a bond has been growing between the two cities, which are 650 miles apart. A delegation of Sarasota city officials took a trip to Greenville several years ago, and in September 2011, a representative from the upstate South Carolina city spoke at an event in Sarasota about the city’s successful efforts to revive its downtown.
“They have a fabulous downtown,” said Ernie Ritz, downtown advocate and president of the Downtown Improvement District.
“They have wide sidewalks, excellent signage, nice green and public spaces, plenty of parking that is sort of tucked a block off Main Street and lots to see and do,” said Steve Queior, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.
Greenville is a success story — a dying textile town that turned its downtown around during the past three decades, said Queior.
Last month, Sarasota named Norman Gollub, former economic development manager from Greenville from 1998 to 2004, as the new downtown Sarasota economic development coordinator.
Now that Sarasota has hired a planner who was instrumental in many of the changes that turned Greenville around, local officials, business leaders and downtown advocates hope to model some of the steps Greenville has taken.
With Gollub’s help, Sarasota hopes to try to follow Greenville’s lead — focusing on the small things that make it more pleasant for pedestrians to get out and walk around.
Downtown advocates also say the following projects are important in 2013:
• Finalizing a project to build a second public-parking garage on State Street and ensure that the public uses the new Palm Avenue garage.
• Moving ahead with plans for a downtown trolley or streetcar.
• Upgrading sidewalks, streetlights and landscaping on Main Street.
• Implementing a strategy to try to keep businesses from leaving the downtown area.
• Bringing market-rate apartments for young professionals.
• Expanding the number of residential units downtown.
• Finalizing a public-private hotel project on Palm Avenue.
Greenville has accomplished or undertaken similar goals already. The city of 61,000 has focused on its downtown, even if that meant doing some controversial moves, such as buying lots behind the forgotten Reedy River and working with a developer on a mixed-use project there.
The city bought another piece of land and attracted a Hyatt Regency to the site. Sarasota is the middle of an effort to do something similar with a sliver of land next to the Palm Avenue parking garage.
Beyond their population sizes, the two cities share some other similarities. Both are surrounded by natural beauty. Sarasota has its bayfront. Greenville has the Reedy River through its downtown. And both have a healthy tourism season and a strong arts presence.
But, perhaps one of the biggest similarities is a desire to maintain and improve a vibrant downtown.
Gollub will move in January to Sarasota from Portland.
In an interview with the Sarasota Observer after Gollub was hired, Queior said he doesn’t expect Gollub to “walk on water,” but he expects the new economic steward to be at the center of activity to make downtown Sarasota stand out and attract new businesses and development.
Queior was impressed by what Gollub had accomplished in Greenville, where the economic steward worked to reduce commercial vacancies downtown and led efforts to bring in $50 million in private development.
The job description for Gollub’s post in Sarasota will be similar to his job in South Carolina.
A main goal for Sarasota’s new downtown economic development coordinator is to try to keep businesses from moving to other commercial districts — including The Mall at University Town Center that broke ground in October.
The new economic coordinator will also be responsible for implementing strategies to increase the number of businesses and jobs downtown, bringing market-rate apartments for working professionals and overseeing an effort to add a pharmacy downtown.
With the economy recovering there will be opportunities to attract new businesses and development, Gollub said.
Sarasota has so much potential, because there already is a condensed core humming with business and activity.
“Downtown Sarasota can be a vibrant environment for both young and old, alike,” Gollub said.
“Greenville was a long time coming,” Gollub said. “It had textile mills that took 25-to-30 years to get to where it is today. Sarasota is so far ahead.”
Pieces of the puzzle
Shaw believes 2013 could be a make-or-break year for many merchants downtown, some of whom have been struggling to keep their businesses open.
“It’s at a tipping point,” Shaw said. “It could go either way.”
Much of the outcome will depend on factors such as the economic climate and tourism.
But, there are three city projects that he thinks can help give downtown business a boost. And, although they won’t solve every problem, they are all “pieces of the puzzle” to make downtown Sarasota successful, Shaw said.
One of the most important changes would be promoting more residential development as the economy emerges out of the recession.
“What’s keeping us back is we don’t have critical mass,” Shaw said, “though we have made great strides over the past 15 years.”
Having a vibrant year-round residential population would help retailers and restaurants weather the slower summer months. The city, Shaw said, needs to encourage residential growth in the downtown core, including the creation of smaller residential units affordable for young professionals.
With this growth, downtown would need a circulator, according to Shaw — either a trolley, such as the pair of trolleys that operate in downtown Greenville — or a fixed-track streetcar. Shaw has been a proponent of plans to bring a streetcar to Sarasota.
“I would like to see the city complete a full feasibility and economic impact study in 2013,” Shaw said. “I would hope we would have some open discussion about the feasibility of a streetcar.”
Starting construction of a proposed State Street parking garage would be another step in the right direction, Shaw said.
The city has received eight proposals from prospective firms interested in constructing the $7.29 million garage.
Shaw and John Anderson, a co-owner of MoZaic, envision a concept for a top deck that would offer a roof system with solar panels and maybe even a public park space where a smaller mid-week Sarasota Farmers Market could be held or outdoor movie nights could be hosted. Shaw has been talking to other merchants about the concept.
But after an article appeared in the Sarasota Observer Sept. 27, a regular at Pastry Art said Shaw’s idea was a stretch.
“He asked me what I was smoking,” Shaw said.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell, however, has shown some interest in Shaw’s ideas for the garage.
“At one point, I would love to have an event on a green roof of a building downtown,” the mayor said.
Having a parking garage near central to mid-Main Street is an important piece of the puzzle, especially once residents begin filling the new Palm Avenue garage.
As for the rooftop park, anywhere the city can add greenspace is a big plus.
“Every great city in America is built around public spaces,” Shaw said.
Contact Roger Drouin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Median age: 49.7
Waterfront: Sarasota Bay
Arts: Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art; Sarasota Ballet; Sarasota Opera; Asolo Repertory Theatre; Florida Studio Theatre; Sarasota Film Festival; Ringling International Arts Festival
Median age: 35
Waterfront: Reedy River
Arts: Peace Center Performing Arts Center; Greenville Little Theater; Greenville County Museum of Art; Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery; Greenville Symphony Orchestra; Café and Then Some downtown comedy theater; The Upstate Shakespeare Festival