For more than 40 years, Paul Thorpe was focused on making downtown a better place, building the foundation for a more vibrant Sarasota.
Paul Thorpe, the man who earned the nickname “Mr. Downtown” for his dedication to civic service and foundational role in several Sarasota institutions, died today at 91.
For nearly five decades, Thorpe was a central figure in the evolution of downtown Sarasota. Earlier this year, the city renamed a park at Lemon Avenue and Pineapple Avenue in his honor and erected a plaque to reflect his outsized legacy within the community.
“No one in the past half-century has been a champion of downtown Sarasota and contributed more to its successful revitalization and redevelopment than Paul N. Thorpe Jr.,” the plaque reads.
His work started soon after he moved to the area from Philadelphia in 1969. In 1974, he helped found the Downtown Association, a merchants group focused on livening up a then-dormant commercial district. That same year, he organized the first Downtown Sarasota Holiday Parade, an event he would lead into his late 80s.
Events like “Old Fashioned Days,” an antique car show Thorpe organized in the late 1970s, were designed to transform a sleepy downtown into a destination. He helped create lasting events including the Sarasota Farmers Market, the New Year’s Eve pineapple drop and the Fourth of July fireworks at Bayfront Park.
He did more than just organize events, too. He was a resource for businesses opening up downtown, a bedrock of professional expertise and institutional knowledge willing to help anyone who sought it out, friends and colleagues attest. He provided guidance as the city drafted master plans downtown and in the Rosemary District. He volunteered his time on advisory boards and offered his insights to city staff on countless projects.
“He was an innovator,” said Barbara Strauss, a friend of Thorpe’s who helped organize the first pineapple drop. “He was making this town change.”
“He was an innovator. He was making this town change.” — Barbara Strauss
As he focused on improving downtown, Thorpe’s professional and personal lives became inseparable. He forged lifelong friendships with the people he worked alongside. In 2002, Thorpe helped place Paul Mattison in the space at Main Street and Lemon Avenue that Mattison’s City Grille occupies. Ever since, Mattison said, Thorpe managed to turn a series of professional interactions into a meaningful, lasting personal relationship.
“It was just always a warm and fuzzy business relationship,” Mattison said. “It wasn’t hardcore business. It was family, friendly business.”
He even met his wife, Jo Ann, at a downtown function.
She was new in town. He was the type of person who, upon learning that someone just moved to the area, immediately began evangelizing on behalf of the city.
“He was interesting,” Jo Ann Thorpe said. “When he started telling me all about Sarasota and why I was going to like it so much, I believed him, because he was so dedicated to what he was doing.”
Whatever motivated Paul Thorpe to dedicate so much time to improving the community, it wasn’t a quest for glory. His friends all describe him as a humble person, seeking no special recognition and happy to share the spotlight.
“He wanted to put people and ideas together and watch them flourish,” Jo Ann Thorpe said. “That was his main love.”
Paul Thorpe derived joy from seeing a community come together. There’s a reason he was drawn to organizing events, and parades, in particular. He went all-out for the first Downtown Sarasota Holiday Parade, bringing in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams to lead the procession atop an elephant — with a live tiger wrapped around his neck.
He was a fan of parades in general, watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Parade every year.
“Everywhere we went — whatever city or whatever area — if he heard about a parade they were having, we were there,” Jo Ann Thorpe said. “Parades were a symbol of people coming together and enjoying their downtowns and their communities.”
“He wanted to put people and ideas together and watch them flourish. That was his main love.” — JoAnn Thorpe
As downtown Sarasota grew — thanks in part to Paul Thorpe’s work — it also became more fragmented, with different organizations sprouting up to represent different interest groups. But Thorpe continued to command near-universal respect from those disparate groups, serving as a key figure downtown even in his later years.
There’s a reason why Thorpe was able to effectively cut through any discord. He was willing to put in work, and he had legitimately good ideas. He was direct, but not harsh. He was kind. He was a generous listener.
“He’d let me or someone else ramble on,” said Ron Soto, president of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association. “You know the old saying of, you can’t put water in a glass that’s full? He’d let you empty your glass, and then he’d say, ‘Okay, here’s what you really need to do.’ He had the knowledge. He’s been through it.”
This summer, Strauss launched a campaign to rename a piece of the city after Thorpe, intent on honoring him while he was still alive to appreciate it. She found little resistance, even within the bureaucracy of local government. In less than two months, the city officially changed the name of Pineapple Park to Paul N. Thorpe Jr. Park.
“Getting people to jump on board for Paul Thorpe is the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Strauss said.
Despite the magnitude of his contributions to the community and the long list of friends he attracted around town, Thorpe downplayed the fact that he was, to a certain crowd, a local icon.
“I’d tell him, ‘Paul, everybody loves you,’” Strauss said. “He’d go, ‘No, no, that’s not true — there are some people who don’t like me.’ And I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t know any one of them.’”
Thorpe is also survived by five children.
A funeral service is planned at 11 a.m. Monday at First United Methodist Church, 104 S. Pineapple Ave., and a burial service at 1:45 p.m. at Sarasota National Cemetery, 9810 State Road 72.
Thorpe’s friends and family agreed that his death is a monumental loss — not just for those who knew him best, but for all of Sarasota.
“I just hope the younger generation will pick up the banner and go follow it,” Jo Ann Thorpe said. “We’re going to need more Paul Thorpes in the future. The challenges are not over. We’re going to need civic-minded people who really care about our communities.”