After almost three decades in Sarasota, I’m hearing another generation make the same old statements, and I’m starting to lose my patience. I’ll admit it—I used to believe many of these things myself. But after the wisdom (and wrinkles) that only age can bring, I now take a contrary view. When I called some other old-timers—all much smarter than I—they told me they, too, have doubts about what often passes as conventional wisdom. With their help, I’ve come up with this short list of statements that aren’t necessarily so.
We need to create enough jobs so our children can come back after college and work here. Really? We want Sarasota to morph from a small, livable city surrounded by pretty suburbs into a major metropolitan area? Because that’s the only way we’ll provide enough corporate and professional jobs—and those are the jobs people who say this want for their kids—to lure all our young graduates back. We do create lots of jobs in low-paying service fields, but young people who want high-paying jobs right out of college need to move to big cities with lots of big companies. If their hearts are set on heading home, they should consider real estate, wealth management, healthcare or starting their own company, all avenues to success in Sarasota.
We must diversify our economy. For decades, experts have been warning us about the shakiness of our three-legged economic stool of retirement, tourism and real estate. If only we could develop more industry or manufacturing, they say, or even better, more high-tech.
To developer Pat Neal, trying to build those sectors is “like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.” Most manufacturers, who need efficient distribution, shun peninsular Florida, and high-tech requires a major research university. “Instead of filling in our weaknesses, we need to capitalize on our strengths,” argues Neal. “We have beautiful air and water, great restaurants, culture and medical facilities. We excel at providing a nice place to live.” Neal’s success rests on building homes for retirees who want exactly that, and he says that market is only getting stronger. “There are 78 million boomers, and one-sixth of them will live some part of their life in Florida,” he says. “They’re healthy, active and they have assets—it’s great!”
As long as we maintain our environment and infrastructure and keep developing recreational amenities, we’ll attract both those retirees and tourists—”plum” assets, says former Sarasota mayor David Merrill. “So many communities are seeking to diversify into retirement and tourism—exactly what we already have,” he says.
We’re getting younger. No, we’re not—we’re getting older. We do have more young people now, simply because we have more people overall, but we keep getting more old people, and they’re living longer. We’re the oldest large county in the U.S., and it’s time we view that as an economic strength, say the proponents of Sarasota’s new Institute for the Ages, which will focus on our unique demographics to develop products, businesses and strategies aimed at the world’s aging population. We can also thank all those seniors for our thriving healthcare industry, which sailed right through the recession.
The dumbest thing we ever did was separate downtown Sarasota from the bayfront. Half a century ago, the city demolished downtown’s bayfront homes and built U.S. 41 in their place. Ever since, planners have argued about how to reconnect downtown with our beautiful bay—for example, building a pedestrian bridge. Whether or not that happens, I’d argue that driving along the downtown bayfront is one of the best things about living here. Resident or visitor, rich or poor, we all travel that road constantly, and the view of water, sailboats and the Gulf beyond lifts our spirits every time.
Growth is inevitable. Everybody knew that Sarasota was going to grow; the only issue was whether we were going to be smart about it or let it rip. One Great Recession later, we’ve learned that with enough greed and financial shenanigans, even Sarasota can stop growing. We’ve started to recover, but former county commissioner Jon Thaxton cautions that while “the real estate industry is critical,” we can never again let it become “the engine that drove everything else rather than being driven by everything else.”
If we could only come up with the perfect plan, we could make downtown Sarasota great. Starting back in the ’80s, I’ve weathered too many downtown acronyms and organizations to remember, from R/UDAT and SEMCOM to the DSA and Duany Plan. But a funny thing happened while we were dithering: Downtown turned into a fantastic place brimming with restaurants, shops, condos, arts and entertainment and crowded with happy people from morning until late at night. Who needs the perfect plan when lots of small efforts, great assets and the free market can get ‘er done?