Sarasota is the land of opportunity-or at least that's what the chat on the street has been. The development business is roaring, and high-end, out-of-town developers keep wandering into City Manager Mike McNees' office for a little chat.
"Three or four have dropped in in the last couple of months," McNees told me, "and I'm sure not all of them even bother to stop by."
It's the Duany Downtown Plan with its promise of long-term livability that's attracting the high rollers. "People are really interested in the mixed use Duany talked about," says McNees, "and these are fairly large companies from out of state."
IF THIS IS A BOOM.
.And it surely is a land boom, with-for example-the average price of a house on Siesta Key doubling in the past five years, according to county property appraiser Jim Todora. He's also quick to point out that some of that increase comes from little houses being replaced by big ones, but the increase is surely happening.
Then when's the bust?
Well, maybe it's already happened, with the big stock market slide over the past year. Savvy realtors like Lynn Robbins tell me they're seeing more investors using what's left of their stock investments to buy real estate-thus fueling the local boom even more. "They can touch it and feel it and frankly, they've finally lost faith in stocks what with the CEO scandals," Robbins adds. Investors, even many brand-new in town, are buying multiple properties-say a house on St. Armands and then a condo on the beach for more investment, rental, and oh, yes, guest house.
Horras Sheffield is one of Sarasota's living legends. Over the years he's produced some of the community's best barbecue and best dance clubs-a great combination.
Couple of years ago the city made Horras an offer he couldn't refuse for his Capricorn II-then the city's only club where blacks and whites rubbed elbows and bumped butts on the dance floor. In a decision that seemed surreal, it was turned into a police substation.
(For reasons that were never clear, the city also bought Sheffield's liquor license as part of the deal-a move that raised suspicions among some. But what the city commissioners didn't know-snicker-was that Horras actually owned two liquor licenses, and so he still had one to spare and to begin club life again.)
After a short stint running a Kay's Bar-B-Q on Central Avenue, Horras is back in full swing with Kay's Bar-B-Q Restaurant and Lounge at DeSoto Road and 301, at the site of the old Crown House and adjoining Duck Inn. This past summer he brought in jazz greats like Leon Merian for a series of Sunday afternoon concerts and sold out. That was in addition to live jazz and blues bands during regular club hours.
Like the old Capricorn, the new club is located right on the border of Sarasota's black and white neighborhoods and draws well from both. Not only is it good business, it's also good citizenship.
While Collier County has more golf holes per capita than anywhere in the country, Sarasota must have more Italian restaurants per person than anywhere this side of Rome. And that's good, because the competition keeps driving better and better Italian cooking here.
For example, a new intimate room called Ferraris at 4155 South Trail, directly across from Walt's Fish Market, serves a plate of puttanesta with smack-you-in-the-mouth spices, including plenty of good anchovies and chopped up breaded eggplant. It's high-spirited old-country Italian and what puttanesta should be rather than the frankly bland versions you find in nearly all local eateries.
That sub-sub culture of Sarasotans who use the Weather Channel the way some people use Muzak, as constant background in their lives, were scratching their heads recently. Something looked too familiar.
During the segues between Weather Channel programming segments, one of the images that flashes by-and around the world-is a shopkeeper, complete with white apron, stepping outside his shop door to peer up at the sky. It's our own Mike Guy, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.
In real life, Mike is responsible for transportation planning-read that, road building-in the two counties. But in his personal time, he's an actor, a trade he plans to pursue full-time upon retirement in a couple of years.
Meg Lowman just celebrated her 10th anniversary at Selby Botanical Gardens, where for the past three years she's been executive director. Now embarking on a master plan that will tie the gardens even closer to downtown Sarasota, Selby looks poised to become a bigger player on several stages.
Q. Where do you see Selby 10 years from now?
A. I see an internationally recognized research institution and tourist attraction with a gorgeous conservatory-a green oasis for downtown Sarasota with the fabulous experience of going into a tropical rain forest for beauty and enjoyment. I hope Mrs. Selby will be proud.
Q. Sarasota abounds with horticultural organizations. Any talks of incorporating, say, the Succulent Society?
A. We'd love to have space to house everyone, and we do offer them support. We're interested in expanding across U.S. 41 and being a centerpiece in the community. It's all about space. We've had great success sharing resources for planning and now we're working with the Arts Council to develop national marketing efforts-a platform that may help the council move beyond its recent controversies.
Q. Last summer Sarasota was identified as having some of the most ozone- polluted air in Florida. Do you see any effects of that in the gardens?
A. We see a change in people's outlooks when they breathe the smell of leaves, flowers and compost. It's certainly better air than out on 41. The county in general is experiencing more insect outbreaks, but we don't see the heavy dirt you find in some urban areas. Of course our most delicate plants-many are one of a kind, like Monets-are housed under glass, so we keep them safe.
Q. Selby's board has long had a reputation in the community as one of the most difficult for its staff. Any harrowing experiences?
A. The biggest challenge for our board members is embracing the complexity of our mission. We're a beautiful place but we also have layers of education and conservation. In my three years, however, I've had no direct board problems.
Q. Spending so much of your life at Selby, how does your personal garden grow?
A. My personal garden is neglected. When I get home at the end of the day very tired, I spend the time with my children, not my plants.