On Aug. 1, businesses in the Rosemary District announced the formation of the Sarasota Design District, the latest attempt to revitalize a neighborhood that has long been the target of redevelopment efforts.
The Sarasota Design District is an association comprising more than 20 businesses. The idea, members say, is to establish the area as a one-stop destination for people interested in home design — from architecture to furnishing, and everything in between. The businesses involved include interior designers, home electronics stores, cabinetmakers and real estate developers, all of whom are concentrated within a small enclave of the Rosemary District.
Michael Bush, president of the Rosemary District Neighborhood Association and co-owner of the furniture store Home Resource, spearheaded the newly formed association. Bush had noticed a number of businesses with the same niche near his, but it was only within the past nine months that he began to detail the other design-related services in the area — the quantity of which surprised even him.
“You start to write down every name and every business entity, and you go, ‘Oh, my God — there’s a lot more here than I ever thought there was,’” Bush said.
For a man dedicated to — and invested in — the success of the Rosemary District, the Sarasota Design District is more than just an opportunity for like-minded businesses to use each other as a signal boost. By creating the Sarasota Design District, Bush and the other members hope to continue the revival of the Rosemary District, which residents and city officials alike have cited as a priority for nearly a decade.
Much of the Rosemary District’s reputation — as a haven for homeless people, as a crime hotbed, as a neighborhood with little activity — is overstated, members of the Design District said. They acknowledge some shortcomings, with caveats: The homeless population is noticeable, but it’s not a deterrent for business. The biggest problem, rather, is just the perception that a big problem exists.
By creating a new image for people to associate with the neighborhood, Bush said he hopes to eliminate those preconceptions.
“It hasn’t been a deterrent for us and for a lot of people, but it still scares people — ‘Why do I want to drive north of Fruitville?’” Bush said. “Creating this brand gives people a belief that there’s a lot more up here than just a couple of stores.”
Karen McKeiver, owner of the custom cabinetry store Cabinet Scapes, first moved her business to the Rosemary District three years ago. In that time, she said, she’s begun to notice growth in that regard. Her customers are undeterred by the location, and she said she hoped the formation of the Design District would help raise awareness of the day-to-day environment of the area.
“It’s very unintimidating to be here,” McKeiver said. “It has a very fresh feeling, a very creative vibe. All of the business owners who stretch this radius here love being here.”
The Sarasota Design District is just one of several attempts to kick-start the Rosemary District, a neighborhood residents say was poised to take off before the recession hit. With the economy recovering, those residents — and city leaders — hope now is the time for development to actually take place.
The proposed Rosemary Residential Overlay District would allow for higher density housing developments within the area, and a 450-unit apartment complex is already slated for the neighborhood if the overlay receives state approval. The city is also in the process of finalizing a development agreement for a public-private “catalyst project” on Boulevard of the Arts. If approved, the Rosemary Square project would include residential, retail and office space, with a focus on the fine arts — including a boutique theater.
Bush said he hoped the concurrent efforts to encourage growth would dovetail with the creation of the Design District, but the new branding could have a more immediate impact than the other developments.
“(The overlay district) creates more density; more density leads to more development in the Rosemary District,” Bush said. “In terms of that new influx of consumers that’s important, but we’re way ahead of that game. It’s time to create this brand and let it become a drawing card.”
The group is modeling itself after the Miami Design District, a neighborhood that was revitalized in the mid-’90s by home design stores before recently evolving into a hub for high-end retail fashion. When consultant Robert Gibbs presented a report on the Rosemary District’s capacity for retail growth at a City Commission meeting last month, he said the Rosemary District could use the Miami Design District as inspiration.
For Bush, who had not spoken with Gibbs, it was confirmation that he was on the right track.
“In our world, it just became a reinforcement that we’re onto a good thing,” Bush said.
The Design District has to tackle some procedural tasks — setting up a board of directors, creating a bank account, determining the exact boundaries — before it can approach anything more ambitious. Already, businesses say they’ve seen an uptick in referrals; before the group’s formation, Bush said, neighboring stores didn’t really talk with one another.
Once the Design District is solidified, there is hope a significant transformation will take place — not just for businesses, but for the neighborhood as a whole.
“I see the future of the Rosemary District as a destination, an absolute destination,” McKeiver said, before imagining a conversation reflective of the renovation the Design District hopes to achieve. “’Where do you want to go tonight? Let’s go to the Rosemary District.’ It’s all going to be here.”
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