A breakfast meeting of the Sarasota Association of Realtors Commercial Investment Division served as an opportunity for city staff to brief the commercial real estate professionals in attendance on the future of downtown and the North Trail.
Though he praised aspects of Main Street, Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norman Gollub likened the street to a barbell — long, with heavy activity on either end, but lacking in the middle. Gollub called for more pedestrian generators, like the Whole Foods or a museum, to encourage increased foot traffic.
“We need these types of entities to get more people walking about downtown,” Gollub said. “We need to spread them out so people will go from point A to point B without getting in the car.”
Another challenge for downtown economic activity, he said, was the hours that retail stores keep. Gollub said 70% of retail sales take place after 5:30 p.m. and on weekends, but that many downtown merchants close at 5 p.m. Gollub said a way property owners are getting stores to stay open is by writing longer operating hours into leases.
Gollub encouraged a transition away from smaller, owner-operated "hobby-retailers" and retail stores that cannot support their owners without a second income, both of which tend to keep irregular hours. Instead, he said, shoppers are interested in high-quality businesses, including regional and national chains.
Along the North Trail, Gollub said, the biggest obstacle to development was overcoming perceptions. He acknowledged there were some parcels with criminal activity, but said overall crime is not a significant problem for existing businesses. For the North Trail to thrive, Gollub said, development should start in the cultural district surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
City Chief Planner Steve Stancel outlined plans for roundabout nodes that will be constructed on the North Trail and throughout the city. He said that roundabouts offer commercial benefits by offering easier access to businesses and slowing traffic so that businesses become more noticeable.
Stancel also went over other city plans for downtown that are still in the development stage. He said that engineering and design was currently being produced for improvements on First Street, and that the city was considering changing the character of Fruitville Road in the future.
"We're looking at possibly going down to one lane in ether direction," Stancel said. "The idea is to create pedestrian walkway opportunities between downtown and the Rosemary District."
Lorna Alston, the general manager of the North Sarasota Redevelopment Division, went over a series of redevelopment efforts throughout the northern end of the city. Alston pointed to the 13-acre Marian Anderson Place site as a significant development opportunity in North Sarasota that should be showcased for its potential as a catalyst project.
“This is a blank slate for developers and realtors,” Alston said.
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