On April 30, the day after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced plans for resuming some economic activity after a statewide stay-at-home order, leaders of various Sarasota business associations met to discuss what reopening should look like on a local level.
The group, the Coalition of Business Associations, produced a series of recommendations it provided to local officials. COBA advocated for such policies as expedited permitting and waiving fees as businesses reoriented themselves around COVID-19 safety guidelines.
As it lobbies to take action addressing the economic downturn associated with a public health emergency, COBA says it has gotten mixed results. Christine Robinson, a COBA member and the executive director of The Argus Foundation, praised Sarasota County and the city of North Port for implementing changes and sharing information with the group.
Robinson said some other officials have either struggled to grasp the severity of the financial crisis facing businesses or not been communicative with COBA at all. She expressed concern that other local governments were not being responsive enough to the needs of the business community.
“They need to go out and hear these stories and understand the sense of urgency,” Robinson said. “There is some disconnect happening right now.”
Back to business
COBA is composed of groups including The Argus Foundation, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange and Visit Sarasota County. In total, the group says it represents more than 7,000 employers in the region.
Robinson said the group produced its recommendations after looking elsewhere in the state to see how communities were responding to the first phase of reopening. She said most of the items — including waiving permitting and costs for health and safety improvements, waiving or expediting permitting for outdoor business activity and temporarily suspending code provisions prohibiting business signage — were intended to allow businesses to move swiftly.
Robinson said even those changes would likely not be enough. She hoped the proposals would be enough to mitigate some of the losses and prevent businesses from closing.
“Most of it is about keeping employees employed,” Robinson said. “You’re not going to make a profit on 25% or 50% capacity.”
Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin said the city has adopted several of the policies COBA is promoting. On April 24, the city waived permitting fees for construction necessary to comply with health and social distancing guidelines. On May 1, the city adjusted zoning regulations to allow for expanded outdoor dining, and on May 13, it announced a new temporary outdoor cafe permit system with no fees.
The city also announced Wednesday it was restricting vehicular access to portions of two downtown streets to allow for expanded pedestrian and commercial activity. This weekend, the city will close the 1300 block of Main Street from Palm Avenue to Mira Mar Court and on State Street from the entrance of the parking garage to Lemon Avenue. The closures will be in effect beginning at 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday and all day Sunday and Monday.
Barwin said the city was interested in experimenting to help businesses and indicated it would explore the creation of a shop-local campaign.
As officials work to help businesses, they must also consider the health and safety of the public as the COVID-19 threat lingers. Barwin said any economic recovery would be undermined if the public did not feel comfortable going out and spending money.
“The people getting back into the social realm and the commerce realm are what you might call the early adapters, who are not that worried about COVID-19,” Barwin said. “But there are many, many people who are going to hold back until they see a lot more masks being worn.”
Barwin pledged to continue to work with the business community, and he encouraged private sector leaders to be mindful of the role health concerns would play as reopening continues.
“The more we can work together on public safety, the better it’s going to help the economic recovery,” Barwin said.
Reopening the pipeline
In addition to regulatory waivers, COBA also advocated for resuming the development review process and expediting permitting for projects that will begin construction in the next six months. In a letter sent to the city of Sarasota on May 12, COBA Chairman Russ Bobbitt said local companies are reporting that construction contracts are beginning to fall through.
Mary Dougherty, executive director of the Gulf Coast Builders Exchange, said the construction industry was fortunate to receive a state designation as essential business. As a result, she said COVID-19 hasn’t yet taken a hard hit on construction. Although some projects have been affected, others have been accelerated to take advantage of current conditions, such as road work and construction at schools.
She praised local governments for adjusting their permitting and inspection practices in response to the pandemic, moving to virtual processes wherever possible. Still, with the long-term effects of the coronavirus still in question, Dougherty said there are some concerns about work slowing in the future.
“It’s about the pipeline,” Dougherty said. “It’s how many projects that were getting ready to go that were now put to the side.”
At Monday’s City Commission meeting, officials discussed the prospect of resuming meetings of the Development Review Committee and Planning Board. City Attorney Robert Fournier said he’s had discussions with staff and believes the DRC could begin meeting again in June, at which point the city could also resume acceptance of development applications. Fournier indicated the DRC would work first to address a backlog of applications.
In addition to some construction being delayed, Dougherty said the effects of COVID-19 could result in even more significant changes within the industry. If shifting business or consumer habits result in decreased demand for office or retail space, that would have a direct effect on builders. At this point in time, Dougherty said industry leaders are preparing for a variety of long-term contingencies.
“You have to do multiple strategies because you just don’t know how things will shake out,” Dougherty said.
Although the uncertain future of COVID-19 is affecting all businesses in the region, Robinson said COBA is remaining focused on the initial steps of the recovery — in part because it’s unclear how the local and statewide reopening process will advance in the coming weeks and months.
“It’s really hard to move off of reopening when you’re trying to plan for all contingencies for what the next stage will be,” Robinson said.