Downtown stakeholders seek increased business activity
A group of downtown property owners is considering spending more on advertising in hopes of offsetting the effects of COVID-19.
| 6:00 a.m. September 3, 2020
Looking for inspiration amid a number of challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Wayne Ruben recently decided to drive up to downtown St. Petersburg.
Ruben, chairman of Sarasota’s Downtown Improvement District, found exactly what he was looking for. The commercial core in St. Petersburg was buzzing; hundreds of people were walking around and taking advantage of outdoor dining options. He saw no empty storefronts. He was struck by how much effort had gone into keeping the area attractive and ensuring customers felt comfortable considering the circumstances.
“I will tell you it was the most invigorating sight I had seen through the entire pandemic,” Ruben said.
When he returned to Sarasota, however, he found himself brought down from the high he was feeling.
“I came back home, and I was very depressed and disappointed because I drove [through] our downtown,” Ruben said. “We look like night and day.”
Ruben, a developer who owns commercial space in the ground floor of the State Street parking garage, made clear at Tuesday’s Downtown Improvement District meeting that he was concerned about the state of the city’s business hub. With businesses including Sur La Table closing following the emergence of COVID-19, Ruben feels anxious about new vacancies and a lack of action downtown.
Echoing similar conversations that have taken place among St. Armands Circle merchants and property owners, Ruben suggested that an increased focus on advertising spending could help stimulate activity downtown. During Tuesday’s DID meeting, the board expressed support for Ruben’s proposal. Board members proposed strategies including print brochures highlighting downtown shops and workers and TV commercials that advertised both the district as a whole and individual businesses.
The DID’s consideration of a greater emphasis on advertising isn’t new. Earlier in the summer, the group was scheduled to host a presentation from marketing consultant Paula Sanders. Although Sanders’ meeting with the DID never came to fruition, a presentation shared with the board encouraged downtown leaders to work together to amplify a single promotional strategy.
“There is no cohesive message like ‘Shop local,’” she said.
In a June interview with the Sarasota Observer, City Manager Tom Barwin suggested the city could pursue its own campaign encouraging residents to patronize local businesses. When the City Commission voted in June to allocate $25,000 toward a mural program, Barwin suggested “Shop local” messaging could be featured in some of the artwork. A city spokesman noted that the city has partnered with businesses on signs and other projects during the pandemic but did not provide any information about the possibility of a city-backed marketing campaign.
Although the DID has previously failed to finalize some proposals for more ambitious advertising campaigns — particularly those involving partnerships with other organizations — Ruben said the current situation demanded a different outlook.
“I think this year is different,” Ruben said. “I’m not so focused on infrastructure like we normally are. We gotta stop the pain any way we can help.”
Organizers scrapped plans for the annual Sarasota Holiday Parade because of COVID-19, but downtown leaders are still determined to create a festive environment.
At Tuesday’s DID meeting, the board agreed to allocate $10,000 for enhanced decorations this holiday season. The money will go to the Sarasota Downtown Enrichment Association, a merchant group responsible for decor.
Ron Soto, a DID board member and president of the Sarasota Downtown Enrichment Association, said the group typically spends about $2,000 on labor to put up the decorations. Without income from the special events the group usually hosts, Soto turned to the DID for support.
The DID was enthusiastic, offering money for Soto’s group to go beyond its usual routine. Soto suggested the additional money could go toward large ornaments, holly and lighting for street poles. The group did not settle on specifics but agreed to concentrate resources within the boundaries of the DID unless outside merchants or owners contributed. The DID extends from Gulfstream Avenue to Goodrich Avenue along Main Street.
Ruben was optimistic increased investment in holiday decorations would make downtown more attractive to visitors. Throughout the meeting, he reiterated that he wanted the DID to explore all possibilities for improving the business environment given the constraints COVID-19 has created for stores and restaurants.
“I think we’d like to put a lot of money into this to make downtown look more lively, more open, more inviting and more invigorating,” Ruben said.