For more than a year now, much of the action of downtown businesses and organizations has been colored by one question: What’s going to happen when the mall opens?
The coming Mall at University Town Center has factored into the discussion of potential beautification projects, inspired questions about parking management and set off concerns about departing merchants. Various downtown organizations — including the Downtown Improvement District, the Downtown Sarasota Alliance and the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association — have prioritized staying competitive with the new shopping center when it opens in October.
Tre Michel, the owner of State of the Arts Gallery at 1525 State St., is one of many downtown merchants facing the looming specter of an imposing competitor. Although she is optimistic about what the district had to offer, she, too, thought downtown was missing a key element that would hurt its ability to stand out when the mall opened: promotion.
“What inspired me was driving around downtown one day and realizing it was better than it had ever been,” Michel said. “All we needed to do was get that in print and tell people.”
Rather than sit back and hope for the best, she decided to take initiative. Michel teamed up with Paul Thorpe, a long-time downtown leader who had also been advocating for an advertising campaign highlighting the heart of the city. As the leader of earlier downtown marketing efforts, Thorpe has firsthand experience with the challenges of corralling the various stakeholder groups behind one cause.
Until recently, no group had stepped forward to confront those challenges.
“There was a big vacuum for 10 or 15 years almost where nothing seemed to be coming together as a united front,” Thorpe said.
The team initially started out under the auspices of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association last September, distributing 100,000 informational brochures with the header “We Are Downtown.” Since then however, they’ve branched out on their own as the Downtown Marketing Co-op. They’ve also gotten more ambitious; as the mall’s Oct. 16 opening draws nearer, they hope to raise $140,000 in support of a year-round campaign promoting downtown business.
In addition to the print brochures, that campaign would include TV ads, social media efforts and light pole banners. The group is working with Visit Sarasota County to produce a singular, comprehensive map listing the various dining, shopping and entertainment options throughout the entirety of the downtown area. Throughout the past year, Michel said, they’ve received an outpouring of support from the merchants they’re representing.
“One merchant would hear about what we were doing, and they would give an idea,” Michel said. “It was a contagious series of ideas.”
To raise the campaign money, Michel and Thorpe have sought support from the various downtown organizations — and, in the process, worked to overcome the divisions that produced the vacuum Thorpe described.
“It’s meant to be all-inclusive, to try to get over the hump of the splinter groups,” Michel said. “It’s meant to draw everyone in and have everyone excited.”
The group has already secured a commitment of $72,000 from the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and $15,000 from the Downtown Improvement District.
Michel said the campaign would attempt to shine a light on the distinguishing characteristics of downtown, making it stand out not only from the mall but from the city’s existing shopping district. Those characteristics include the proximity to the bayfront, the cultural offerings and the number of local shops.
“What we wanted to focus on is what makes downtown different than the mall and different than St. Armands,” Michel said. “Every commercial, every digital banner ad, every print ad will focus on what makes us different.”
Thorpe hopes to see other downtown stakeholders back the marketing effort, particularly those embarking on multimillion-dollar developments in the area. In his eyes, the continued success of downtown businesses is crucial to the success of downtown as a whole.
“We’re going to go talk to the people that are coming to town and spending lots of money to be here, encouraging them to support the program,” Thorpe said. “It benefits them — if downtown continues to grow and prosper, it’s good for someone who has a hotel with 200 rooms.”
Thorpe and Michel said the biggest challenge they’ve faced is coordinating the various downtown factions and getting them to unify behind one project. In this case, they say, coordination is essential to the campaign — and to the long-term health of the downtown district.
“We’ve all got to be working together and unite as one team,” Thorpe said. “We’re all downtown Sarasota. Working together is the most important thing.”
From a merchant’s perspective, Michel says she’s not as worried about the potential loss of business to the mall. She cites a survey in which 63% of respondents indicated they would visit the mall three or four times a year and says quarterly visits shouldn’t threaten the livelihood of downtown businesses.
She thinks the work done by downtown organizations is enough to counterbalance the shoppers who are drawn to the mall, and that highlighting the area may even grow business in the coming months.
“Nobody thinks this is not a good time downtown,” Michel said. “Everybody is much more positive than negative.”
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