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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013 4 years ago

Downtown businesses seek to combat vagrancy issue

by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Homelessness is an issue that’s affecting Sarasota on multiple scales. The city and county are working to address the problem regionally, but on a smaller level, some downtown businesses are banding together to try to solve vagrancy issues.

Aliki Gable is the manager at Evelyn and Arthur, a clothing store at 1480 Main St. She has noticed a recurring vagrancy problem in the area outside the store, and she thinks it’s a danger to her — or any — retail business.

She also noticed that Butch Isaac, the owner of a building just off Main Street on Lemon Avenue, had combated a similar problem by hiring a private security officer. If it worked for him, she figured, it could work throughout her block. She decided to approach nearby businesses.

“I went out and just tried to see: ‘Do you have a vagrancy problem; is it an issue; do your customers feel secure?’” Gable said. “And pretty much everyone said, ‘Yeah, it’s a problem.’”

Fifteen out of 19 merchants on the 1400 block of Main Street were willing to contribute financially, according to Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norman Gollub, and the initiative began to spread to the 1300 block. Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and owner of Soto’s Optical, was one of the champions of the cause on the 1300 block.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Soto said. “The more presence of policemen; the less panhandling that’s going on; the safer people feel; and the more people are going to want to shop.”

Gable’s next step was to go to the Downtown Improvement District for additional financial support from property owners. It was fortuitous timing — just before Gollub presented the idea at the Sept. 3 meeting, the DID arrived at a similar idea on its own.

In response to a report by Sarasota Police Department transient coordinator David Dubendorf, in which he said Sarasota was seeing as much as four times the amount of homeless activity as the average similar-sized city, the DID called for additional SPD coverage to combat any problems. Currently, two foot-patrol officers cover downtown from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

Although both groups are striving to achieve a common goal, any partnership between the DID and merchants may become its own hurdle.

At the DID meeting, a number of variables came up: Who would help pay? How many officers would be patrolling? Would certain businesses that call for greater security need to contribute more money? How do they account for the different needs of different areas?

One of the biggest questions came down to who would be doing the patrolling. Although Gable was working to bring on a private security firm, members of the DID were interested in bringing in an off-duty SPD officer — a more expensive option — to have access to the department’s resources.

SPD officer Linda DeNiro said the department was working out the specifics of how the external funding of an additional officer might work for the DID, and that a timeline for how quickly one might be added could not be estimated.

Regardless of what the DID decides, Gable is pushing for immediate action.

“I think we’ve got to get geared by October,” Gable said. “In October, we’ve got our seasonal folks coming in, and they have to come in and explore Main Street.”

That might be a target the DID is unable to meet, even before considering any obstacles on the SPD’s end. They’re planning to discuss the topic at a Sept. 17 meeting, but DID Operations Manager John Moran said a concrete plan should be developed before any action is taken.

“This is a big, complex problem,” Moran said. “I think it’s more than we have the capacity to deal with, but I think we can respond to a plan.”

Contact David Conway at [email protected]

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