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New faces join improvement district boards

A majority of the City Commission indicated a desire to bring fresh perspectives to downtown and St. Armands Circle property owner groups.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. March 18, 2021
The Downtown Improvement District and St. Armands Business Improvement District are responsible for projects such as the lightpole flower baskets in downtown Sarasota. File photo.
The Downtown Improvement District and St. Armands Business Improvement District are responsible for projects such as the lightpole flower baskets in downtown Sarasota. File photo.
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Ernie Ritz played a foundational role in the 2008 formation of the Downtown Improvement District, a self-taxing group of commercial property owners. More than a decade later, a majority of the City Commission thinks it’s time for Ritz to step aside and let new stockholders have a seat.

On March 1, the City Commission appointed five members to the Downtown Improvement District and St. Armands Business Improvement boards of directors. Three of the five members had not previously served on the advisory boards. Mark Kauffman, the sole returning director to the DID, was one vote away from being replaced, too.

Commissioners Hagen Brody, Erik Arroyo and Kyle Battie were clear that this was a deliberate change of direction. In the past, the city has generally given deference to experienced advisory board members seeking reappointment. Brody and Arroyo both offered praise for Ritz and Kauffman, but they said adding new members to the DID and BID boards presented an opportunity to explore new perspectives.

“We sort of created our own exclusive little club, and I think it’s time that we change that,” Arroyo said. “Yes, it’s not typical for the commission to do that, but this isn’t really a typical commission.”

Commissioners Jen Ahearn-Koch and Liz Alpert both said they were enthusiastic about reappointing Ritz and Kauffman to the DID board.

“When people step up and volunteer for these positions, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it — their time, their effort, their energy and their ideas,” Ahearn-Koch said. “First, I always go to reappoint the person who has served if they have done a great job.”

The commission also didn’t split evenly: Battie voted to replace Ritz but supported Kauffman’s reappointment.

Chris Voelker, the owner of State Street Eating House, is filling Ritz’s seat on the DID board. Voelker said she’s always been on the periphery of downtown issues and paid attention to what’s going on in the heart of the city.

Voelker spoke positively about the work the DID has done. She said the group has done both high-profile projects, such as installing flower baskets, and some infrastructure upgrades that might have gone under the radar for some people. She expressed a desire to assist with the ongoing streetscape improvement initiative the DID is undertaking, an idea Ritz brought to the board.

Voelker said she was particularly interested in working to improve the vibrancy of downtown.

“I always ask myself: Why would I go downtown?” Voelker said. “Right now, to me, the predominant answer is to go to a restaurant or bar. I think there has to be a bit more.”

The two new directors of the St. Armands BID, Yvonne Schloss and Tom Leonard, are filling new seats created after the board expanded from three to five members. The BID has a term limit of two consecutive four-year terms.

Leonard, the owner of Shore, did not respond to a request for comment.

Schloss, who owns Sunglass Express Optical, said she’s attended BID meetings for years. Schloss said she wants to listen and learn while settling into her position and hoped adding a new voice  would prove beneficial.

“I do believe that sometimes when you have a new energy, new ideas appear,” Schloss said.

At its March 2 meeting, the board agreed to pursue the creation of a plaque honoring Ritz.

“He’s a special guy,” board member Wayne Ruben said. “He did great things — he’s doing great things for our city. He’s still bushy tailed and right with us.”


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