Cities, like people, keep evolving, and the Sarasota we cover today is not the little-known Southwest Florida town of sedate Midwestern retirees and mom-and-pop business owners that we were back when we began publishing in 1979—or the luxury boom town of the early 2000s. In a story in this 30th anniversary issue, senior editor Robert Plunket looks back at 10 of the critical moments in our city’s evolution during the last 30 years. Now, in the current economic crisis, we’re experiencing another defining moment.
For decades, our city’s prosperity has depended on a steady stream of newcomers and the construction and services they needed. That peaked during the recent boom, when we had so much development and spending that one CEO euphorically—and prophetically—said to me, "We’re doing so much business it’s stupid!" Clearly, those days are over, and we’re going to have to find a new way to succeed.
Sarasota has always had its real estate booms and busts, of course, most famously during the 1920s. At the height of that delirium, in 1925, ordinary people were getting rich from speculation, "binder boys" were rushing through the streets, trading the same lot for ever-higher prices several times in a single day, and the city was floating one new bond after another for grand civic improvements. But in 1926, the over-inflated market collapsed. Fortunes vanished, businesses and banks failed, and the town staggered through the next decade under a crushing weight of bonded indebtedness.
Now almost a century later, we’re in a similar spot. People all over the world are caught in this crisis, of course, but as the epicenter of the recent real estate boom and collapse, we’ve been particularly hard hit.
Yes, we knew the explosive growth of recent years was a two-headed beast, as dangerous as it was seductive, depleting our natural resources and undermining all the reasons that made people want to move here, but who could really worry about that when every day, 1,000 newcomers arrived in the Sunshine State in need of new homes and services we could provide?
As Peabody Award-winning reporter Michael Grunwald points out in an interview in our sister publication, Biz941, this month, we were too busy building those houses and opening businesses to consider that almost all of those 1,000 newcomers were counting on another 1,000 newcomers every day to provide them with the jobs and incomes they needed. Our state and local government depended on new residents, too, with almost all our taxes coming from growth and construction.
But the music has all but stopped. Population growth is at a 30-year low; here in Sarasota school enrollments have slipped—unthinkable!—and some folks are packing it up and heading for greener pastures. Meanwhile, our tax revenues are in free fall, meaning the state has even less to spend on schools and community services that already ranked near the bottom of the nation.
I keep hearing people speculate about when the good times will return—late this year? In 2010? But I suspect that the Florida that was fueled by 1,000 new people a day and endless construction and development is gone forever, and instead of just sitting here tightening our belts and waiting for yesterday to return, we’re going to have to find a sounder, smarter way to survive and prosper.
Some people still hope scads of retiring baby boomers will head to Sarasota to buy big houses and spread their wealth around. Maybe—but with their real estate and stock portfolios collapsing, it’s more likely many of them will decide just to stay put, or to downsize their retirement homes and spending.
Others have a different idea: Sarasota could become a hotbed of "green" technology and research and development of alternative energy sources. That’s a good fit with our intellectual and entrepreneurial tradition. But we’d have to summon the leadership and civic will—often in short supply in fractious Sarasota—to protect and even improve our schools, environment and cultural institutions at a time when state and local budgets are being slashed, since workers in the new "knowledge" economy insist on living in places with great schools and quality of life.
Whatever way we choose, we’re going to have to reinvent ourselves—and our community—once again.
And that’s not such a terrible thing. Tough times can test us, but they also make us think and grow. Ask any self-made man or woman about the exhilarating early years of struggle and creation. When you’re lean and hungry, you’re forced to innovate. The Asolo’s recent blockbuster Barnum was a wonderful extravaganza with gorgeous costumes, dazzling acrobatics and a genuine Broadway star, but their late-night plays with Conservatory grad students can be just as stirring—and sometimes even more rewarding.
And the boom didn’t always bring out the best in us, anyway. I thought about that last weekend, when I went to two estate sales. One was at a pretty house on Siesta Key. It had belonged to an elderly woman, who collected embroidered linens, books and interesting art. Nothing was especially expensive, but everything, from her heirloom china to the beaded evening coat folded in tissue paper in the closet, told the story of a person of taste and sophistication who valued and cared for her possessions.
The next sale was at a mega-home on the mainland, close to the bay. Room after room was stuffed with furniture, paintings, statuary and accessories. Everything looked new—almost unused—and expensive, but it was all so bland and sterile. I didn’t see anything—books, family pictures, evidence of hobbies—that hinted at the personality of those who’d lived there. It felt like they’d gone on a shopping spree to fill the house with random things that cost a lot but weren’t worth much—and now they’d lost them all, anyway.
It may be a cliché, but it’s true: The richest lives focus on relationships, experiences and lasting quality. And in good times and bad, that’s exactly what has set Sarasota apart. Our city is famous for its talented population of artists, art supporters, volunteers, lifetime learners, philanthropists, high achievers and entrepreneurs, and for the quality of life that drew them here and that they help to enhance and perpetuate. So long as we keep our focus on quality, we will remain an exceptional place, whether we attract green industry, sophisticated newcomers or something we haven’t even imagined yet.
Here at the magazine, we’ll be working harder to make sure that every issue speaks to you and enriches your life. Like the city, our magazine will keep reinventing itself and responding to new realities, while maintaining the quality that sets us apart. It’s a new Sarasota all over again—and that’s the time-honored story of this city we love.