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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018 1 week ago

Downtown event plans face hurdles

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The Downtown Improvement District sees an events coordinator as a wise investment, but city leaders aren’t on board.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

In pursuit of a plan to bring more people downtown, Sarasota leaders are looking to Delray Beach.

On Tuesday, the Downtown Improvement District invited Stephanie Immelman to discuss strategies for promoting the city as a destination. Immelman is executive director of the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative, a group responsible for organizing events and other promotional efforts.

Immelman said the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative has been a success. Jointly funded by the city, the Greater Delray Beach Chamber of Commerce and a community redevelopment agency, she said the group’s economic impact dwarfs its $700,000 annual budget. The cooperative estimated it generated more than $3 million in economic impact in December 2016 alone, hosting a Christmas tree lighting, a New Year’s Eve celebration and more.

The Downtown Improvement District was impressed with Immelman’s presentation. The group saw it as an opportunity to overcome the fractured nature of various downtown stakeholder groups. It also hoped it would allow downtown to host more community-oriented events, rather than for-profit events such as art shows.

The DID knew Sarasota couldn’t immediately jump to a cooperative as robust as the one in Delray Beach. Still, the board expressed hope the city and Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce would be willing to partner on a single, jointly funded position, which Immelman estimated could draw an $80,000 annual salary.

“If you get one passionate, dedicated person in there, they can do a lot,” Immelman said.

The group quickly learned that getting the city to commit to such a proposition would be a challenge. Although Planning Director Steve Cover expressed support for a program that would encourage more events downtown, Redevelopment Manager Susan Dodd said city administration had discussed the proposal at length — and was not supportive.

“The city, when approached with this concept, their instant thoughts are: We’ve got a moratorium on events right now,” Dodd said. “Downtown’s resistant to additional events, in many cases. You can’t sell alcohol; we have noise ordinance issues; we can’t provide for any more staff; we can barely address the assets we have and so on and so forth.”

DID board members were frustrated by the notion the city wasn’t interested in investing money in what the group saw as a serious economic development tool. Board member Ron Soto also expressed disappointment in the city’s existing events policies, which he said included fees that discourage the type of community-oriented events the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative organized.

Board member Wayne Ruben suggested the DID could put together a presentation, with Immelman’s assistance, attempting to convince city officials the events and promotional position would be a worthy investment. The group agreed to hire Immelman as a consultant to help develop a more detailed proposal.

Dodd encouraged the group to focus on the net financial impact such a position would have on the city’s budget. She also encouraged the DID to get buy-in from other stakeholders before going to the city.

Kevin Cooper, president and CEO of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, said the proposal sounded like a good idea. He, too, encouraged the DID to work out the details and gather additional support before pressing forward.

“I think what we need to do is figure out a plan that everyone’s going to get behind and get around,” Cooper said. “If that’s not where it is yet, I think you’re going to run into continuous challenges.”

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