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Downtown: Time to go big and go bold

Before he died, the late Sarasota entrepreneur Gil Waters created a rendering of one of his long-sought visions: turning Main Street from Palm Avenue to Orange Avenue into a pedestrian plaza.

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If the late Sarasota entrepreneur Gil Waters were still here, he would have advocated with all of his strength and force to the Sarasota City Commission, city manager and downtown businesses: “Do it! Just do it! Try it!”

Waters would have advocated that the city do what he tried to accomplish for nearly 50 years — shut off Main Street to cars from Orange Avenue west to Bayfront Drive during the day and night and turn it into a pedestrian plaza for shoppers and diners.

For years before he became ill, Waters — one of the leading lights for business, culture and growth in Sarasota — kept the accompanying rendering of how he envisioned a Main Street plaza.

Unfortunately, it was one of the few visions he was unable to accomplish.

But even in his after life, we know Waters is still advocating for his vision — at least to be tried.

If ever there were a moment, this is it.

City Manager Tom Barwin told commissioners that after polling downtown businesses, the consensus was to try closing State Street from the garage entrance to Lemon Avenue for the four restaurants in that area and to close lower Main Street one block from Palm Avenue to Mira Mar Court.

“We are going to experiment,” Barwin said.

That’s a start.

Predictably, a survey and poll of 400 downtown businesses about closing Main Street didn’t produce a consensus. Barwin said the city typically looks for “66% of the storefronts” to support a street closure.

Here’s where leadership comes into play.

Commissioner Hagen Brody expressed concerns that closing only two small areas of downtown streets isn’t going far enough. As Brody noted, the purpose of closing the streets is twofold: to give all the restaurants more social distancing  space for tables and guests and to give pedestrians more space, so they don’t have to walk in between tables on the sidewalks or walk on the street while dodging cars.

Brody is right. Now is the time to go big and go bold.

Close off Main Street from Orange Avenue to Palm Avenue, and close off Lemon and State streets where the restaurants are. Start the experiment nightly from evening to 11 p.m. and see how it goes.

But who will rally the support? Barwin? Gil Waters, where are you?

If the downtown business owners — retailers included — want customers to come back, and if Sarasotans want to maintain a lively downtown, now is the time to pivot and experiment.

It’s a win-win: more space for everyone for social distancing and something new and innovative for the consumer.

Go big, and go bold.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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