Paul Thorpe knows downtown Sarasota like the palm of his hand. On this day, the 87-year-old points out what new businesses have come into the area and reminisces about the storefront shops that once were.
Thorpe was one of the founding members of the Downtown Association of Sarasota, which formed in 1974, and helped downtown Sarasota thrive and become what it is today. It’s no wonder he has earned the nickname, Mr. Downtown.
“I like to stir the pot,” Thorpe says.
He has been “stirring the pot” and making strides with the city for almost 40 years and says he won’t stop until “they carry me down the street.”
The Philadelphia native first came to Sarasota in 1969.
“It had the most to offer with an airport. It was close to Tampa and unbelievable beaches,” Thorpe says in his still-present Philly accent.
After selling his Sarasota business to his son in 1973, Thorpe worked as the business development officer for Palmer Bank on Central Avenue and Main Street.
He noticed many big-time retail stores, such as Sears and JCPenney, were leaving downtown and moving into malls. Many storefront windows became empty. Thorpe didn’t like what he was seeing. He wanted downtown to thrive.
So, in 1974, he and other merchants created the Downtown Association of Sarasota to bring more businesses, people and money into downtown. That same year, Thorpe organized the first downtown holiday parade. World-famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams, from Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, rode an elephant down Main Street.
Thorpe has organized 19 other parades since then and even helped start the Sarasota Farmers Market. The farmers market has grown from six vendors on a half-block in 1976 to almost 100 vendors covering four blocks today.
Thorpe was with the Florida Redevelopment Association from 1992 to 2002 and remembers being laughed at when he said Sarasota was going to put in a 20-screen movie theater on Main Street. Despite other members’ doubts, Thorpe followed through, and Hollywood 20 is now one of the most profitable theaters in the Regal chain.
“Most cities in Florida want to grow up and be Sarasota,” Thorpe says. “It is a town with eight legitimate theaters, a ballet, an opera, Florida Studio Theatre and the Van Wezel. It’s like New York City for a town our size to have that sort of cultural history.”
Thorpe has been organizing the Sarasota New Year’s Eve celebration with Ernie Ritz through their company, Downtown Promotions, since 2000.
“We have the reputation of being an old population. I am in my 80s, but on New Year’s Eve, I was out with 30,000 young people until 4 a.m.,” Thorpe says. “And I didn’t get up for two days after.”
Thorpe continues to be a strong voice for downtown. He is involved in countless community organizations and sits on the board for the Community Redevelopment Agency, St. Armands Circle and the Downtown Sarasota Alliance, and, still to this day, he organizes the holiday parade.
He attends City Commission meetings, and merchants continue to value his advice.
“I’ve recently started the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, and it’s been a bit of a struggle. Some days I think, ‘Just forget it and quit,’” says President Ron Soto. “But, then, I think, ‘Paul Thorpe wouldn’t quit! Otherwise downtown Sarasota would not be what it is today.’”
“He is a person who cares about this town and shows that at any age we can still be viable human beings. That guy is out every day of the week. He continues to move forward, and I imagine Paul will do that until the day he dies.”
— Barbara Strauss, close friend
“Paul was always concerned about the economic viliability of the downtown area. I think anyone who has vision is an important community person. These days not many people have thought about the future, but they think about the here and now.”
— City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo
“I can’t think of anyone who has done more for downtown (than Paul).”
— Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association