The Wells Fargo bank building on St. Armands Circle, a parking lot behind the main shopping district, is like a magnet for Rachel Burns.
In some 25 years in banking, Burns worked at the building three different times, as an assistant branch manager and, later, as manager. With Wells Fargo gone, the building now serves as headquarters for the St. Armands Circle Association, a 100-member group that supports commerce, merchants and events in the tony shopping enclave. Burns once again calls the building her work home, as executive director of the association. She was named to the position in February 2021, and officially took over this past June, when longtime executive director Diana Corrigan retired after a transition period.
Burns, 43, is so happy to be back on the Circle and helping businesses there thrive that not even a long commute during season dampens her mood. “Every once in a while, when I’m driving over the Ringling Bridge and a really cool song comes on the radio and the water is glistening, I’m like, yeah, this is my life,” Burns says with a smile. “And I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”
Burns takes over the helm of the association during a confounding time in retail in general and the Circle specifically. For one, e-commerce has been pounding away at brick-and-mortar retail for years, a trend only accelerated in the pandemic. Inflation, supply chain issues and a potential recession only exacerbate the situation.
Yet the Circle seems to defy most retail industry economics. St. Armands’ rents are traditionally some of the highest per square foot in the region, and building sales attract some snazzy and prominent investors, from Manatee County-based Benderson Development to a South Florida joint venture that included the son of a Saudi billionaire. In the latter deal, the joint venture paid $15.5 million for two St. Armands retail properties in late 2020.
Burns was on the association’s board for six years when she worked at Wells Fargo. When some board members approached her about the internal leadership position, she was excited to go for it. “When you are on St. Armands, it’s not just something you are buying,” she says. “It’s something you experience with all your senses, and you fall in love with the area.”
In a summer interview with Key Life, Burns spoke about other aspects of her career, her new position and what’s next at the Circle.
“Our mission is to market this organization, and I’m trying to work out new ways of doing that. How people are influenced today is different than what it was 10 years ago. I’m also an advocate for the merchants with the city, landowners and anyone else.”
St. Armands is in the city of Sarasota, and working with city officials, from events to chatting with police, takes up a good deal of Burns’ time. “I didn’t realize how many moving parts there are when working with the city. A lot of my emails start with ‘I’m pretty sure this isn’t your department, but...’ I’ve been really lucky that the people in the city have helped a lot. Without them I’d still be lost.”
“St. Armands is somewhere where yes, you can run in a store and quickly pick up what you need and go, but we are also unique because you can spend a day or two here. This is a historic destination. When John Ringling created the community, he wanted residents and visitors to co-mingle, browse in stores together and dine outside on wide patios.”
Burns left Wells Fargo in 2019 and took a brief detour out of banking. The lure of the Circle brought her back. “I came back because I loved the people. I had some of my best clients here and heard the greatest stories of their lives.”
“It’s a total change of career path midlife, but it’s incredible. I’m basically getting to do what I love again. I’m working with residents, working with merchants, working with all these people to keep this area I love so much alive.”
“It’s a lot for one person to do and make sure I’m able to help everybody. Coming from a corporate background since I was 18, I have that sunset rule, where by the end of the business day anyone who has reached out to me, I need to reach back out to. Although I’m not always successful, I really try to do that.”