Norman Gollub has been busy talking to business owners and Realtors, and getting to know city officials since he started his as the new downtown economic development coordinator job Jan. 16.
But, some of Gollub’s most important research has involved touring downtown Sarasota block-by-block, over the past few weeks.
Gollub is getting a feel for what makes Sarasota’s downtown unique.
“I think Sarasota should be Sarasota,” Gollub said. “Not try to be like somewhere else. Sarasota can draw on examples from other places, but it should have its own culture.”
He was impressed by the strong arts presence and saw potential in the Rosemary District and areas north of the heart of downtown ripe for economic growth and redevelopment. Yet, there were some noticeable aspects that were lacking.
Gollub sees opportunities to bring in redevelopment and businesses and make downtown a more lively and walkable hub of activity.
Gollub noticed a torn awning above two vacant storefronts on Main Street. He made a mental note.
He said it’s the small things, such as the torn awning, that residents and tourists might notice. Gollub has been meeting with commercial property owners and real-estate brokers to talk about ways to achieve 100% occupany.
“Downtown has good businesses,” he said. “It needs more good businesses.”
Having market-rate housing downtown is only half of the equation.
Gollub also wants to see a strong effort by local leaders to strengthen economic development downtown.
Gollub has an idea to encourage the growth of jobs in the digital arts, an economic industry that already has a foundation in a downtown that has several theaters, multimedia companies and a creative incubator and is close to Ringling College of Art and Design, which specializes in digital arts.
Whether it’s as simple as adding a crosswalk where a sidewalk ends abruptly on Linx Avenue or as complex as constructing new roundabouts, the city can improve the way pedestrians and bicyclists circulate freely and safely around the city.
Gollub hopes urban planner and “Walkable City” author Jeff Speck’s visit this week, which includes a tour and speech, revives the conversation on connectivity and walkability and what it takes to a have a downtown accessible to all —not just the automobile.
The Rosemary District and Gillespie Park are in dire need of easier pedestrian access, Gollub said.
Gollub moved to Sarasota from Portland, Ore., at the first of the year. He talked about how in Portland, it’s expensive to live downtown. There, many young professionals live in affordable walk-to-downtown neighborhoods.
“What is needed (in Sarasota) is an opportunity for the younger population to live in or near downtown,” Gollub said.
Proponents of a plan to bring lower-priced, smaller apartments to downtown say the plan won’t work unless the city relaxes its limits on density.
“Every community that wants a vibrant downtown needs to be looking at density,” Gollub said.
Increasing the density would allow developers to build projects with more affordable units, Gollub said.
In Greenville, S.C., where Gollub was the economic development coordinator from 1998 to 2004, two catalyst projects spurred development on separate ends of downtown. One of those was a Hyatt Hotel that “kicked off” Main Street’s revival 30 years ago, Gollub said.
Such catalyst projects in Sarasota could require the city to invest in land or some costs in exchange for stimulating nearby projects.
“Rosemary is a key piece of the puzzle,” Gollub said.
Upper Main streetscape
Upper Main Street is just outside the Downtown Improvement District (DID) and as a result, does not receive improvement-district funding for projects, such as the new landscaping and sidewalks planned for Palm Avenue, mid-Main Street and First Street.
The stretch of upper-Main Street, between Goodrich and Links avenues, is barren, Gollub said. Upgraded landscaping and even art designs along the way can liven this stretch.