Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part My View that will run consecutive weeks in the Sarasota Observer.
Do you suppose Sarasota can claim the best downtown in America?
We’re getting there. It’s one goal of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s initiative called Sarasota Tomorrow — an effort led by forward-thinking business leaders.
Four years ago, we raised $2 million for Sarasota Tomorrow, and we’re seeking more. It is a bargain. In the four years since Sarasota Tomorrow was created, we estimate that the investment has bought us 2,470 local jobs saved or secured, with payrolls or savings or economic impact totaling a bit more than $82 million.
That’s better than a 40-to-1 return on investment.
To achieve the best downtown in America, our partners and we believe there are at least four major needs:
• Downtown street beautification. A downtown hotel (an ideal location is that city-owned property just north of the new parking garage. There’s a vote shortly on that subject).
• Expanding the definition of “downtown” to encompass the Rosemary District, where there is vacant land.
• A second parking garage, this one likely on city property on State Street.
• Additional stores, in addition to the impressive list now inhabiting downtown: ice cream, more female apparel, more male apparel, more jewelry, a shoe store and more. (We’re already in good shape, of course, for galleries and restaurants.)
We’ve made some progress. We believe we can claim these achievements:
• Defeat of Amendment 4, with some 7,000 jobs saved, representing taxes of nearly $21 million.
• Professional baseball secured here for 30 years, with payrolls of nearly $17 million.
• All together, we helped pass the school referendum, saving jobs with payrolls of nearly $10 million.
• All together again, we secured U.S. 301 advance funding to complete improvements, creating 365-plus jobs with nearly $13 million in earnings.
• We helped increase the county’s bond cap, resulting in estimated personal earnings of more than $22 million.
• We took a hand in passing Jobs Win, tax-exemption ordinances encouraging businesses to expand or relocate here. Estimated jobs so far created annually, 200, with total earnings of $9 million.
• All together, we championed that world-class rowing facility and hosted regattas generating at least $4.5 million in local revenues and maybe twice that. Soon, the rowing venues will generate several times that amount.
• We helped develop the Sarasota County’s Energy Economic Zone. Projected new jobs 250 with earnings of more than $11 million.
• And Sarasota Tomorrow joined in the creation of www.energizemybiz.com, which connects local businesses to more than 200,000 prospective customers worldwide.
The effort to make our downtown the best in America is funded by the city, the Downtown Improvement District and Sarasota Tomorrow. It is led by one of the authors of this, Randy Welker, who came to us from Cincinnati, where the economic development folks had a tougher job because they were concerned with numberless local governments and three state governments. “It’s simpler here in Sarasota,” he says, “because we have a tighter area, and a forward-thinking government, and many forward-thinking merchants and other entrepreneurs, plus more than 24,000 employees downtown.”
Welker compares the quality of our downtown with those in San Diego and, nearby, West Palm Beach, though that Florida east coast city is much larger.
Still, ours is plenty big. Comparing it to that wondrous St. Armands Circle, Sarasota’s downtown core contains 2,588 businesses and St. Armands 223. Employees downtown in retail, 2,585, and St. Armands 1,364. Restaurants in Sarasota’s downtown 91, and St. Armands 30.
So, our downtown is healthy. And as we continue the Sarasota Tomorrow program, then tomorrow it will be healthier still.
Steve Queior is president of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. Randy Welker is the chamber’s economic development coordinator.