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Sarasota Thursday, Oct. 15, 2009 11 years ago

Small group carries large influence

by: Robin Roy City Editor

A new Main Street restaurant’s struggle to build a small outdoor dining space is causing ripples throughout the city.

At issue is the 110 feet of greenspace the Braza Brazilian Steakhouse wants to cover with brick pavers. (See story below.)

When the newly formed Downtown Sarasota Alliance (DSA) discussed last week who was opposed to the removal of greenspace to make room for outdoor tables, Save Our Sarasota (S.O.S.) was the name that came up most often.

DSA members expressed concern and frustration that Save Our Sarasota was able to influence the City Commission.

“The commission is being pressed by fringe groups,” said Forrest Shaw, DSA board member and owner of Pastry Art. “We have to stop this.”

Save Our Sarasota, which is an advocate for greenspace, is a mystery to many, because when it issues positions by e-mail or on its blog, it signs them “Save Our Sarasota Steering Committee.” No names of S.O.S. members are ever used.

The group has seven official members, each one a member of the steering committee. That membership could explain why Save Our Sarasota has sway in City Hall. The steering committee includes Mayor Dick Clapp, County Commissioner Joe Barbetta, Gretchen Serrie, Jude Levy, Dick Sheldon, Don Chaney and Carol Reynolds.

“I was impressed that such a small group had such political influence,” said Craiger Scheuer, DSA spokesman. “Now I know why.”

Clapp did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Levy and the late Janice Green started Save Our Sarasota in 2004, after becoming frustrated with the removal of two trees on Main Street to make way for a restaurant awning.

Its mission statement is: “To be a constructive and positive voice for the preservation and enhancement of Sarasota.”

Scheuer characterized Save Our Sarasota as “a group that’s not really a group,” because it is not registered with the state, does not have an office, does not have regularly scheduled meetings and does not take minutes at the meetings it does have.

DSA members, many of whom are merchants, wondered why the commission ignores their requests, such as when they spoke about the financial risks of parking meters and the commission approved meters anyway, but pays heed to Save Our Sarasota.

“They have seven members. We have 193, and we’re just starting a membership drive,” said Scheuer. “We have an office, 501(c)3, corporate documents, and we’re having to do battle with folks who like e-mailing.”

S.O.S. member Sheldon said his group represents people who don’t have a voice in Sarasota.

“We have 300 to 350 people on our e-mail list,” he said. “That’s a significant number of people. It’s not just seven people trying to push through their views.”

The DSA and downtown business owners believe Save Our Sarasota would rather see a business fail than eliminate greenspace that might help that business thrive.

“We have people investing their life savings to open a business and you can’t hold them hostage,” said John Simon, DSA board member and developer of Pineapple Square.

But, Sheldon disagreed, saying Save Our Sarasota is in favor of quality development and that greenspace removed to accommodate a business can be mitigated elsewhere downtown.

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