The Sarasota County business district offers cheap rents — and big opportunities.
In roughly the last decade, land values in the Gulf Gate business district have fallen by nearly 40% on average, with some owners losing more than half the value of their property after the onset of the recession, according to a Sarasota Observer analysis of property records.
That has hurt investors, some of whom have owned their buildings for more than 30 years.
But the decline has kept rents low, allowing young entrepreneurs to invest — and thrive —in the area. In turn, that is sparking an evolution that could change the face of a district primarily known as a nightlife destination.
Nicole Leffler, the 34-year-old owner of Wild Ginger Apothecary and Wild Ginger Lifestyle on Superior Avenue, has leased another storefront with plans to open a lounge under the same name this week. The three businesses, the first of which she opened in late 2014, focus on eco-friendly health and beauty products, nutrition and fitness.
“I opened this store on a super tiny, tiny budget,” Leffler said. “I had been planning to do this store for a decade, but financially, it just wasn’t in the cards.”
Leffler isn’t alone. Chad Abel, 39, opened Able + Willing Supply Co., a socially conscious apparel store, next door to Wild Ginger in December. He said he has invested as much as $8,000 to reimagine his business’ new home, which was once a salon.
“I wouldn’t be able to put this store downtown,” said Abel, who worked as a freelance creative director in Boston prior to coming to Sarasota. “It’s definitely one of the reasons that I chose this location.”
When Becky Shultes, 29, bought Heavenly Cupcakes in 2012, she said it was difficult fitting in with the other businesses in Gulf Gate. Clockmakers, consignment shops and salons had been operating there for decades, while bars and restaurants mostly brought crowds in the evenings.
“I kind of felt like a loner,” said Shultes said.
Now, using coupons and her cupcakes, she partners with one of the newest additions to the district: the Clever Cup Coffee Shop. The cafe and gallery, which opened in January, features Heavenly Cupcakes’ baked goods.
“I think what we’re trying to do is create a little Brooklyn.” — Lindsey Nickel-de la O
The four owners of the Clever Cup, all under age 40, spent about $52,000 to convert the former consignment shop into a hip java joint that features live music Friday nights on Gateway Avenue.
“We invested a lot of love and passion and time to make this place amazing,” said co-owner Lindsey Nickel-de la O, whose sales were up 73% this month over January. “We feel like our investment was right to be here.”
Leffler and Nickel-de la O, who lends her public relations expertise as creative director of Sarasota-based Nickel Communications, are crafting a formal map of Gulf Gate to advertise the area to tourists and residents who may not know that the district offers everything from sushi to pierogis.
“I think what I love about Gulf Gate is how eclectic it is,” Shultes said while sipping a raspberry mocha at the Clever Cup Tuesday.
While Shultes and Nickel-de la O have found a symbiotic relationship on Gateway, Wild Ginger features a shelf of flyers advertising other Gulf Gate businesses, such as Inside Out Nutrition & Fitness.
Also on Superior Avenue, Leffler hosts First Friday events in her storefront parking lot. The initiative is supposed to bring merchants together and create more awareness about Gulf Gate.
“I would love to see more young entrepreneurs come into the area and bring more of a variety of things a younger audience could come here and enjoy,” said Abel, a participant in First Friday.
Challenges and opportunities
But First Fridays rarely draw more than a handful of stores to participate. And with a wide variety of businesses in the district, it has been difficult to form a merchants association.
“The bars don’t need a tremendous amount of boost from the nightlife standpoint,” Nickel-de la O said.
Sarasota County requires 60% of owners to sign off on becoming a business district, which would help owners in the area lobby for more capital improvements. A self-taxing district could also fund new pavement or landscaping.
“I’d love to see them clean up the medians,” said Nickel-de la O.
Still, business owners interviewed by the Sarasota Observer said they have seen an uptick in foot traffic, even though some are specialty stores with niche audiences. And, even in the face of dipping property values, all were happy with the burgeoning scene of hip storefronts.
“I think what we’re trying to do is create a little Brooklyn,” said Nickel-de la O. “Sarasota can have its downtown and Central Park, but we’re kind of OK being Brooklyn.”