What’s the best way to promote downtown Sarasota as a destination?
The Downtown Improvement District isn’t sure, but it’s trying to find out. The DID is juggling traditional and modern marketing strategies as it considers investing property tax funds into an advertising campaign for the heart of the city.
In 2014, merchant Tre Michel and downtown leader Paul Thorpe teamed up to launch the We Are Downtown marketing campaign. The branding effort included posting banners and printing advertising booklets. Working with Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norm Gollub, Michel and Thorpe hoped to unite different downtown groups behind one cause.
Today, that group is lacking any substantive funding. After Gollub left his position and funding from downtown groups dried up, new materials produced under the We Are Downtown banner have been a cooperative effort of individual merchants.
On Tuesday, Michel and Thorpe went before the DID board to request $26,400 in funding to kick-start a renewed advertising campaign.
The money would be used to pay for new banners, print ads, postcards, maps and an assistant to maintain an informational website.
“We need funds to keep it going,” Michel said.
The DID praised Michel and Thorpe’s work, but the board balked at fulfilling the entirety of the group’s funding request, electing to commit $15,000 to the campaign. In recent months, board members have advocated for an increased focus on marketing, but the focus has been on digital advertising.
On Tuesday, the board approved another marketing initiative. The DID will pay $2,500 for a 90-minute workshop with local digital advertising company atLarge Inc. to discuss a future promotional campaign for the downtown district.
AtLarge will produce a report with recommendations based on the DID’s input following the workshop.
“We can find out what has worked in the past, what hasn’t worked and give you some ideas and concepts of what we could move forward with,” atLarge brand strategist Mike Marraccini said.
DID board member Steve Seidensticker expressed a desire to bring together the two advertising groups to work on a coordinated push. He said the We Are Downtown campaign laid a solid groundwork for drawing people to the area and hoped atLarge’s work could fill in the gaps.
DID Chairman Ron Soto was one of several board members who suggested the DID shouldn’t be the sole funding source for any downtown promotional campaign. The city, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Sarasota Merchants Association were mentioned as potential funders.
“Let’s bring all of us together as stakeholders, so it doesn’t fall on the smallest organization financially — which is us,” Seidensticker said.
Board member Mark Kauffman expressed doubt about the value of dedicating any DID funds toward promotional efforts.
“If we don’t do the infrastructure, nobody will do it,” Kauffman said. “I am always strongly in favor of spending for infrastructure and letting the merchants do the advertising.”
Ultimately, the board agreed to revisit its advertising priorities after next month’s scheduled workshop with atLarge. Thorpe expressed his belief that We Are Downtown is a valuable short-term enterprise, even as the DID explores its long-term strategy with a different group.
“We’re in progress; we’ve got a website,” Thorpe said. “Everything’s there and can be operated right now.”