The recently departed Downtown Sarasota Alliance chairman talks about the issues created by downtown factionalism and the need for more decisive leadership in the city.
Casey Coulburn’s time as chairman of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance came to an end Wednesday morning, but the outgoing leader will still keep a close eye on the evolution of the heart of the city and Sarasota as a whole. A lawyer specializing in governmental issues, Colburn doesn’t shy away from pointing to areas he thinks the city could improve the way it functions.
We spoke with Colburn about the proliferation of downtown interest groups and his belief that the city is suffering from a lack of clear leadership.
What kind of challenge is created by the subdivision of various downtown stakeholders into different interest groups?
I think we do have a bunch of people who can work well together. It’s a problem when people are working for their own benefit, rather than for the stated goal or a shared objective. The DSA is an umbrella group, and its objective is the mission statement: Make downtown the best place to live, work and play, to have a clean and safe and vibrant downtown. We strive to be the unified voice for those objectives, but it’s a very significant challenge because, for whatever reason, we consistently see other actors within the downtown space saying that we don’t do a good job at that, or we’re not those people. It’s never really backed up by any evidence, but, rather, it’s usually said in the context of trying to assume that role on their own. I think that what it does it sets back everybody when people treat our city as a very small pie. If we work together, the result is going to be a hell of a lot more pie.
I think that what it does it sets back everybody when people treat our city as a very small pie. If we work together, the result is going to be a hell of a lot more pie.
How do you get everybody on the same page, then?
I don’t create the page. My role in life and my role in my career has been to help people achieve their objective. It was not I that came up with the idea of a clean and safe and vibrant downtown. It was someone hell of a lot smarter and with a hell of a lot more experience in successful communities. That person was actually hired by the city and the Chamber of Commerce and never given the opportunity to succeed, and they left. He explained what makes a successful city and said very clearly — it’s all about clean and safe. And he pointed me to examples, and because I want to know everything, I researched the hell out of it. We actually pulled together an approach and had it ready to roll out and seek funding, but the economy and politics — both internal to our organization and within the community — frustrated the timing. It doesn’t mean that we had the only solution, but it was a proven approach.
I think the last election showed — the people aren’t stupid, and they can see that they’d been getting taken advantage of.
At the same time, the county was working with Marbut. That proved to be an opportunity for potential success that a lot of people in the community gravitated toward — at the same time, it provides a very clear example of those who find success in the negative space. History’s full of very successful opposition leaders. We’ve had a number of very successful opposition leaders in our community. We’ve had far fewer successful leaders. The result is that the community has been adrift for nearly a decade. Fortunately, we’re adrift in a tropical lagoon. For the most part, the vast majority of our population doesn’t experience too much negative as a consequence of the drift. But I think the last election showed — the people aren’t stupid, and they can see that they’d been getting taken advantage of.
Why continue to work within a system that seems to be frustrating for you?
I’m a fixer. If I see something wrong, and I see an injustice, I’m compelled to fix it. The one thing I’ve found that works in this community is you talk about it, because a lot of people don’t know. It’s not their inclination to look behind the curtain, because the outward appearance of the community is everything is great. It’s not perfect. It could be better. It could be fairer. Young people could have more opportunities. But unless they’re wary of the traps that are set for them, they’re going to end up blindsided, frustrated, stabbed in the back or ruined.
The outward appearance of the community is everything is great. It’s not perfect. It could be better. It could be fairer.
How do you think the city can address the problems you see persisting?
The city has matured to a point where it is desperate for someone accountable to be in charge. I don’t know whether it is the answer, but i really believe it’s worth a try to have an elected executive that’s responsible for the execution of the mission of the city. The mission is the legislative body, and it will be the legislative body and it should be the legislative body. But it’s blunt, and it’s not an executive instrument. It has failed remarkably in so many spectacular ways.
Bradenton built their riverwalk and is expanding it ever eastward, and the city of Sarasota can’t connect something that was built in the ’50s beyond a few blocks. It’s not because they don’t have the capacity to do it, and it’s certainly not because they don’t have the money to do it. It’s because there’s nobody in charge.
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.