The Downtown Improvement District board welcomed a new member at its Nov. 26 meeting, as the City Commission tapped Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association President Ron Soto to join the group.
Soto, a lifetime Sarasota resident, has owned Soto’s Optical on Main Street for 28 years after joining the family optometry business in 1975. He said his reason for applying to join the DID board was simple: He wanted to help improve downtown.
“I own property in the downtown area,” Soto said. “I’ve got a business in the downtown area, so I’ve got a vested interest in seeing downtown thrive and succeed better.”
Before Soto replaced William Pettey on the DID board, which is made up of downtown property owners, Art To Walk On owner Eileen Hampshire was the group’s only merchant. With a board largely made up of members who were property owners above all else, Soto said the DID’s focus was primarily on hardscape improvements.
“My feeling is they were worried more about improving the property values downtown,” Soto said. “I’m more worried about building business downtown.”
In Soto’s eyes, that process should begin with beautifying and maintaining the area and improving security downtown.
“To me, bricks and mortar makes a great downtown, but downtown needs to be clean and safe for people to feel comfortable shopping,” Soto said. “That’s my priority, making downtown clean and safe.”
Soto said he didn’t want to criticize any previous actions of the board; instead, he’s focusing on the types of improvements he would like to see going forward. He pointed to the Dec. 4 installation of lights on oak trees along Main Street — a Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association project — as a worthwhile effort.
He also encouraged increased sidewalk maintenance on the 1400 and 1500 blocks of Main Street, saying it was a smaller-scale effort the DID could undertake even with much of its budget already allocated to other projects.
DID board member Mark Kauffman, a developer who owns several properties downtown, said Soto was a welcome addition to the board. Although Kauffman said he felt the DID already had the ears of the merchants, he said Soto’s ability to provide that perspective was appreciated.
“I think he’ll have an excellent impact,” Kauffman said. “He’s a downtown activist, he’s a nice guy and he brings a nice angle to the table as a business owner.”
Soto said he expected to mesh well with the rest of the DID board, and that with another merchant on board, the dynamics of the group moved closer to an optimal combination.
“I think we can more forward, and I think it’s a really good mix right now,” Soto said.
CURRENT DID BOARD MEMBERS
Chairman: Ernie Ritz
Vice Chairman: Mark Kauffman
Pushing the Boundaries
Not content with its ability to undertake significant improvement projects, the Downtown Improvement District board is looking to potentially expand its borders next year.
Property owners within the district are required to pay an additional 2 mill property tax to fund the DID. With that in mind, the board is brainstorming potential improvement plans that could help persuade new areas to acquiesce to the expansion.
At a meeting Tuesday, one of the most-discussed targets for expansion was a bayfront area that includes the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota and Hyatt Regency hotels. DID operations manager John Moran said a proposed tram that would circulate between the bayfront hotels and downtown was gathering support from those hotels, but no funding had been found.
If the DID offered its support for such a project, Moran said, it could be a way to ingratiate itself with the property owners in that area.
“Could that be a project, if presented to those who would otherwise be in opposition, that would neutralize them or create support for joining the DID?” Moran said.
Beyond laying the groundwork for expansion plans, the DID undertook other future financial management strategies. The board voted to keep $68,000 in reserve for 2015, more than half of its available funds for fiscal year 2014. DID member Mark Kauffman said it was important to roll money over to future years so that a more significant fund can be developed.
“I would rather squirrel away money so that we can do a big-impact project — if not this year, then next year or the following year — rather than to dissipate what funds we have,” Kauffman said.
Contact David Conway at [email protected]