Stop spreading the news.
That was the appeal four downtown merchants made at Monday’s City Commission meeting, where they lobbied officials to remove a modular newsstand from the intersection of Main Street. Representatives for businesses including Gator Club and Pastry Art Bakery Cafe said they believed the newspaper racks contributed to issues they associated with homelessness, including panhandling.
They said the racks were poorly maintained, vandalized and sometimes filled with trash. Gator Cub owner Larry Segal said he understood the convenience of having publications collected in large newsstands in the public right of way, but he thought the existing stands were more trouble than they were worth.
“I don’t think it’s good for business, I don’t think it’s good for residents and I don’t think it’s good for the city,” Segal said.
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said the Herald-Tribune Media Group was responsible for maintaining the green newsstands posted throughout downtown when they were installed. Brown said the Observer Media Group, the owner and publisher of the Sarasota Observer, had expressed interest in assuming responsibility for the maintenance of the newsstands in light of the concern about their presence and condition.
Observer Media Group Publisher Emily Walsh appeared at Monday’s commission meeting to expand on the company’s interest in preserving and maintaining the newsstands. Although some speakers suggested the newsstands were unnecessary and pointed out some spaces in them are empty, Walsh said the Observer and other publications placed in the stands had affirmed their desire to remain there.
“It’s very important to our businesses, but also to the local merchants that advertise within our publications,” Walsh said.
Walsh said these publications shared the dissatisfaction with the state of the newsstands, noting that they wanted their readers to be able to see the newspapers and not worry about finding trash when they open one of the boxes. If the Observer Media Group took responsibility for maintaining those newsstands, she was optimistic the issues merchants had could be addressed.
Ron Soto, president of the Downtown Sarasota Merchants Association, expressed some skepticism about the ability to adequately monitor the newsstands. He said he noticed someone had recently repainted the stands and that they did look better, but new signs of vandalism appeared soon after.
“It’d be nice if somebody would take over and make sure it was nice, but like I said, it was just painted less than a week ago, and it’s already back to having the graffiti and stuff on it now,” Soto said. “It’s almost impossible to maintain that thing.”
Before there’s any resolution about what to do with the newsstands, the city needs to do more research about the regulations governing their presence on downtown streets. In an email, the city said its code requires the newsstands to “be maintained in a neat and clean condition and in good repair at all times.” If the stand or its pockets are empty for more than 45 days, it is considered abandoned and should be removed.
The city is required to notify the party that placed the newsstands about any issues and give them time to correct them. One problem: City staff has been unable to find a formal, written agreement with the Herald-Tribune Media Group regarding the maintenance of the stands.
The city said when the ordinance was approved in the ‘90s, the Herald-Tribune was running a voluntary program to maintain the stands on behalf of all newspapers using them. In 2010, the city worked with the Herald-Tribune to repair or replace some newsstands, and in 2012, the city sent notices to the Herald-Tribune regarding the condition of the stands.
City spokeswoman Jan Thornburg said the city would reach out to the Observer Media Group regarding the maintenance offer once officials had a better understanding of the history of the newsstands.
Walsh said she was hopeful the Observer Media Group could work productively with downtown stakeholders, affected publications and city officials to arrive at a plan that worked for all parties.
“Hopefully, we can have further meetings to discuss how we might be of help and a solution,” Walsh said.