What’s the difference between the downtown districts in Sarasota and cities such as Asheville, N.C., Portland, Ore., or Austin, Texas?
If you ask Steve Seidensticker, the answer is just perception.
“What they’ve done that we haven’t done — we haven’t branded the downtown in a really interesting, cool way,” Seidensticker said. “It’s an old-school, generic way of doing it.”
Seidensticker, the owner of Louies Modern and a Downtown Improvement District board member, wants to change that. To effectively promote the downtown area, though, he said stakeholders first have to push past their own self-interest.
He knows it’s not easy. Downtown is a stratified area. Groups such as the DID, the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association and the Downtown Sarasota Alliance showcase the divisions of interests within the core.
In the past, those divisions have tripped up joint efforts to advertise downtown as a destination within Sarasota. But the DID is trying again to overcome those divisions, holding a workshop Tuesday to discuss the possibility of a unified downtown promotional campaign.
The group worked with atLarge Inc., a local digital advertising company, in an attempt to outline the goals and challenges associated with a promotional effort.
At times during the meeting, the discussion steered toward hurdles that have stymied similar conversations. Board members didn’t want the DID to pay for the majority of the advertising, especially if it was advertising portions of downtown outside of the taxing district’s boundaries.
“What I don’t want to happen is that the DID takes this on with all vitality, and everybody else says, ‘I don’t have to worry about that,’” board member Mark Kauffman said. “I would rather the DID supplement existing advertising rather than being the prime mover.”
But Seidensticker implored the group not to get bogged down in those details at this point in the process. Other board members agreed, suggesting the DID could take the lead on creating a campaign, with other groups coming into the fold once details become solidified.
“I think a successful outcome for the DID would be to forge that vision so other people could buy into it,” said Anand Pallegar, founder of atLarge.
During the course of the 90-minute workshop, the DID shared an interest in shifting the narrative surrounding downtown to highlight more positive attributes. The group believes many of the negative perceptions surrounding downtown are actually unfounded, but it’s difficult to get people to change their minds without a proactive effort.
“We do have ample parking downtown,” Kauffman said. “We have three garages now and a lot of street parking. That really has to be advertised.”
Board member Eileen Hampshire suggested a model for promoting the downtown area that would emphasize each corner of the district’s unique attributes. She suggested specificity could help overcome divisions, with merchants less likely to buy into a campaign that promoted a more nebulous “downtown.”
“What if we work together — but as a mosaic, not a pudding,” Hampshire said. “Every street downtown has a different aura. Palm Avenue is totally different from lower Main.”
Although the conversation has been contained to the DID thus far, there are signs other downtown groups are willing to participate, too. Ron Soto, chairman of the Downtown Improvement District and the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, said merchants are interested in contributing to advertising. A representative for the Downtown Sarasota Alliance in attendance at Tuesday’s workshop said the same thing.
Following the meeting, atLarge will take the information it gathered and present its recommendations at a future DID meeting. From there, the DID could expand the scope of the discussion to incorporate other groups.
Eventually, the DID hopes to find a way for people to come together to accentuate the good things about downtown Sarasota.
“I think what we’re trying to do is shift the dialogue away from the homeless and the parking and the traffic,” Seidensticker said. “I think it’s our job to be the leaders again. We’ve got to control the message.”