- December 2, 2018
James Miller remembered the last conversation he had with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO and President Rex Jensen right before he and his wife, Misdee, purchased the 158-acre Sarasota Polo Club in June of 2018.
"Rex said, 'If you don't buy it, we will shut it down,'" Miller said Jensen told him. "When I got into this, the only reason was that I wanted to save polo in Sarasota. We had a vision and we were willing to take a risk."
James Miller admitted that vision didn't include flooding and the coronavirus.
But after the Millers' first season included several rainouts and flooding, the 2019-20 season included losing seven weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first lost week this season in that seven-week stretch was St. Patrick's Day weekend, typically the club's biggest drawing event of the year.
Throw in a $500,000 training track rebuild and more than $1 million in turf improvements and irrigation, and Polo Club residents began wondering if the Millers might sour on their decision to run the club.
"The club made tremendous improvement from the year we didn't own it through the time we did," Miller said. "We are going to continue to try to make the public experience better. We're going to keep doing what we do. We've had setbacks, but we're not going to let them define us."
Therefore Miller, who together with Misdee also owns the 1,400-acre Hillcroft Farm in Paris, Ky., said he will continue to put money into improvements.
"This offseason we will make some major improvements to the clubhouse," he said. "The (seven lost weeks due to the coronavirus) gave us more time, which is good because it's always tough getting the permits. We usually have to get things done in a short window."
The Millers are considering a more open concept in the clubhouse and various ways to provide more space. A catering kitchen is going to be added and a bar will be built in the center of clubhouse's main room that will also provide a good view of the main field. A deck will be added to the front of the clubhouse to provide more seating during the matches.
Other improvements include renovated men's restrooms for those attending the matches and a renovated gift shop.
Miller said the main challenge is developing more seating for spectators without taking away tailgate space. He said fans will see different options in place on the north side of the main field next season.
"Every year we've done capital improvements," Miller said. "We've improved the grass, the barns, we're renovating the clubhouse. Last year we did a lot of irrigation."
He said the expense of the irrigation system already has paid dividends. During drought conditions earlier this season, the Sarasota Polo Club had to use more water, but with more efficiency than the previous system which sprayed water high into the winds.
"Now we have a pop up system like a golf course," he said. "Everything is zoned. We only are using the water we need."
Eventually, the Millers would like to see revenues cover the costs of running the club, which features seven polo fields and was founded in 1991.
Over the 14 weeks that were contested this past season, which would have ended late in April, the Sarasota Polo Club drew approximately 40,000 spectators. On Feb. 9, the club drew 5,000 spectators, which was a record. Miller shut down the matches March 13 but kept his entire staff of full-time workers employed.
"This year we were doing really well," he said. "We definitely were up (in attendance). Let's just hope (COVID-19) is only one year. It makes me proud elevating this club."
Miller will continue to seek other revenue sources. He said SMR's Ranch Night that featured food trucks and live music at the polo club on Wednesday nights brought in a nice crowd and more chances to create revenue. He hopes SMR explores starting the Wednesday event later in the year (it started on Jan. 8 this season and went through February) and continuing through the end of polo season, or longer.
"They closed it this year just when it started to get warm," he said. "For us, it was an extra night to be in business."
Other possibilities include concerts — he said he would like to host a Dave Matthews type event — or a Festival of Speed car show.
Miller was asked how the community could support his efforts to keep the Sarasota Polo Club alive.
"Everybody's normal is gone," he said. "But I hope next season the local businesses will come (to the Sunday matches)."