A proposal to place an official visitors center in the Palm Avenue parking garage is receiving a lukewarm reception.
Andrew Foley, Downtown Improvement District board member, suggested his group be custodians of that office but that it be run by the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau (SCVB).
“I think downtown would do great with a visitors center,” he said. “It could generate traffic into downtown.”
Foley said the center could also sell tickets to local events and even possibly work out a deal with the Sarasota Film Festival to use the space during the festival.
But Virginia Haley, SCVB president, listed a number of reasons why she didn’t think a new center on Palm Avenue would be effective — first of which was that the current office is already downtown, located at 701 N. Tamiami Trail.
“We may not be on Main Street,” she said, “but we are downtown, just a quarter-mile away from the parking garage.”
Haley said visitors centers need to be on major thoroughfares. Palm Avenue would be too difficult to find, she said.
“The reason (Haley) doesn’t want it — because it’s hard to find — is exactly why we need it,” said Foley.
The proximity to the parking spaces inside the garage, which is scheduled to be complete in December, is an advantage, according to Foley. But Haley said tourists would not park in a garage for those services. Instead, they want to get in and out quickly.
The Convention and Visitors Bureau has 40 volunteers who man its visitors center, and, according to Haley, they undergo monthly training.
“An effective visitors center is more than a bunch of brochures in an empty storefront,” said Haley.
The county has told the SCVB that it could be merged into one location with the Economic Development Corporation and Arts Council, so until that issue is resolved, Haley is reluctant to discuss a new location.
Instead of a new visitors center, Haley suggested that downtown Sarasota adopt a program that has met success in downtown Venice.
“Main Street Ambassadors stroll up and down and provide brochures and information to tourists,” she said. “It would be great for Sarasota.”
And her No. 1 piece of advice for those wanting to promote Main Street — maps.
“What’s needed more than anything is a simple map of downtown,” she said. “We go through thousands of maps of St. Armands, Venice and Siesta Key.”
Haley said there has never been a consistent printing of a downtown Sarasota map that shows the locations of shops, cultural centers and more.
The Downtown Improvement District and Downtown Sarasota Alliance have begun separate discussions about creating a comprehensive map.
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