A new merchants group has formed, splintering from the established Downtown Sarasota Alliance, to bring a more focused approach to issues that specifically impact downtown shop owners.
The freshly founded group, called the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, aims to bring more customers downtown, lobby for improvements on Main Street and represent merchants at City Hall. It plans to push for the small things, such as new trashcans and clean sidewalks on Main Street, while engaging in the bigger battles, such as paid parking and ensuring Downtown Improvement District funding is spent on projects that will enhance the district.
Ron Soto, owner of Soto’s Optics and the informal merchant-appointed “captain” of the new group, said the problem was that the Downtown Sarasota Alliance morphed into more of a chamber-like group as opposed to a lobbying arm for merchants.
“It’s just that the DSA has continued to grow so much that it cannot focus on the merchants,” Soto said. “And the merchants, in my opinion, fuel downtown.”
John Harshman, a downtown commercial broker and chairman of the DSA, said that the group was formed to bring several smaller organizations together, and its mission has been to do whatever it takes to promote downtown for businesses, residents and tourists. According to Harshman, its role was never to focus solely on merchants, although Harshman lists a $20,000-plus marketing campaign called Live Sarasota and an upcoming Dine Downtown event as examples of what the group does to bring business downtown.
“We are doing all kinds of good things for downtown,” Harshman said. “The DSA supports all efforts to make downtown the best downtown.”
But Soto said the need for a merchants-only organization became clearer over the past few months. The impetus, in part, was a sour economy that has made it more difficult to draw customers into stores. Merchants realized they needed to work together more than ever.
The other spark was a fight against the city’s effort to put in parking meters downtown.
As merchants rallied against paid parking, they realized they needed a more unified voice.
“The only way we are taken seriously is if we pull together,” Soto said.
Soto cited the fact that only three of 14 members of the DSA board are merchants — a structure that was established by the group’s bylaws — and that the DSA has grown to 320 members, including residents and business owners who live outside of the downtown area.
“The DSA got so big, I refer to it as a dinosaur, and we all know what happened to dinosaurs,” Soto said.
So far, more than 20 merchants have joined the new Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, with six new merchants joining last week. Many merchants will remain members of both groups.
Strength in numbers
Some merchants say the Downtown Sarasota Alliance was not involved enough in the opposition against paid parking over the past year.
But Harshman said the DSA had the same message for city commissioners as that of vocal merchants. DSA members spoke out against paid parking, speaking at public meetings and, at one point, asked for a 90-day removal of the meters so city officials could work with merchants to reconsider where to place the meters and how they would best operate.
Harshman said that message was the same — although it might have been delivered in a different manner.
“We were on the same page,” Harshman said.
Merchants, however, employed a more quixotic approach they felt was needed to get city officials to yank the parking meters from Main Street. They staged a “Bag the Meters” rally at City Hall, wearing bags over their heads and tossing quarters out in protest.
“The parking meters got everyone together,” said Ron Kennedy, co-owner of Kennedy Studios on Main Street, about merchants banding together.
The small things
Kennedy walked down the sidewalk last Thursday with Jasper, his 13-year-old Brittany who keeps him company during the day and greets studio customers. The studio owner noticed the paint chipping off a lamppost. Kennedy also realized that the city’s Public Works department had just replaced a rusted trashcan at the corner of Main Street and Lemon Avenue. Kennedy had called the city about the trashcan a week earlier.
It’s the small things, such as a rusted trashcan or a paint-chipped lamppost, that Kennedy says make a difference, because customers and diners notice these when they visit the area.
As a member of the new Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, Kennedy will chair the group’s maintenance committee. His focus will be on sidewalks and trashcans.
“I’ll be the prod for the city and the DID, reminding them of these maintenance issues,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, who has run a studio on Main Street for 20 years with his wife, is not sure how the new group will work out, but he’s hopeful it will become a positive evolution in downtown merchants’ efforts to make downtown a draw for tourists and residents alike.
“The merchants can look over their own needs better than anyone else,” Kennedy said.
“We are looking to get people downtown, get them into the stores, now over the next few weeks or in six months,” Soto said. “We want to keep downtown a vibrant place where things are happening.”
The Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association is so new that it hasn’t created its webpage yet, but the group has a fan page on Facebook.