Dining off the beaten track with Bob Ardren.
There's no more universal food than bread wrapped around something-what we call sandwiches. Be they breakfast, lunch or dinner, a snack in between or a survival ration to keep you fortified or even keep you alive, sandwiches are a recurring element in most of our lives.
Luckily, we're blessed with fine sandwiches in Sarasota. I may prefer the fried oyster sandwich at Walt's (4144 S. Tamiami Trail, $6.98) and you the blue cheese burger at Patrick's (1400 Main St., $6.98), but the point is we both have bountiful choices.
Ever try a BLT for breakfast? They serve them at the Waffle Stop (660 S. Washington Blvd., $5.98), and if you get there early enough, you'll see folks like Marina Jack owner Bob Soran dropping in and having just that. Several locals even order their BLTs with an "over-hard" egg in them at the Waffle Stop. Now, honestly, that puts an Egg McMuffin to shame.
For a really killer BLT (one of my favorite late suppers), it's hard to beat the Sports Page Bar & Grille (1339 Main St., $6.98) where they almost-but not quite-put on too much bacon, and the price even includes a choice of side dishes. Get the crispy French fries, some of the very best in the city.
Real Sarasotans should probably only eat grouper sandwiches. That's because grouper, although getting rarer and more expensive, is still the most popular fish-sandwich meat we have on the West Coast of Florida.
But lots of local restaurants serve good grouper sandwiches, so the trick is to find the whole package. That means both a fine sandwich and a fine setting. Sure, it's important to have good, fresh grouper and a decent bun, but the best sandwich in the world loses a lot if you're cooped up in some plastic-coated joint staring at a plastic-coated wall.
For my favorite you'll have to drive south on U.S. 41, actually down a little south of Venice, and cross over River Road (or just get off I-75 at the River Road exit and go west to U.S. 41). You'll find yourself at the Myakka River Oyster Bar, located on the north bank of Florida's only official "Wild and Scenic" river.
It's easy to find. Just look for where the Myakka flows under Tamiami Trail and drive into the parking lot on the northwest side. You'll have a tasty grouper sandwich ($7.95) cooked just right and washed down with an ice-cold beer while sitting on an open porch overlooking the river.
You'll also wonder why you hadn't made this simple trip years ago. It's a look at Old Florida with only some houses-no high-rises-in sight. One early evening, while feasting on grouper sandwiches, we watched some local kids catch a huge snook right in front of us and drag it up on the bank. One kid's mother came running out of a house and took pictures. Then they released the fish back into the water and went inside because, I guess, supper was ready.
And lastly, there's that most exotic of sandwiches to newcomers from the North: the Cuban. Layers of thinly sliced ham, pork roast, cheese and pickles in pressed Cuban bread slathered with mayo and mustard-ah, I want to go back to Cuba again.
El Habanero (417 Burns Court, $6.95) will fix you right up, but for the even more authentic deal that includes thin slices of salami for a little extra zest, take yourself over to the Columbia, on St. Armands Circle. The same price, believe it or not, gets you the Columbia Cuban, which, with apologies to all those grouper swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, is nothing more or less than the sustaining sandwich of Sarasota.
Sarasota City Commissioner Danny Bilyeu represents the southeastern district. By trade he's a carpenter, with a new part-time job marrying people. A longtime neighborhood activist, Bilyeu won a commission seat on his second try, in 2003.
Q: Do you favor the city-manager or elected-mayor form of city government? I think that our government-the commission/manager form of government-can work. What the people want is somebody they can feel is accountable. Am I open to an elected mayor? Yes, I think so. I'm hearing it from more sides now, more than just the so-called "strong mayor" people.
You've said that all the time you spend on city duties seriously affects your ability to earn a living. Should we pay commissioners more? I came into this with the understanding it is a part-time job. There are between 22 and 24 regularly scheduled commission meetings a year. The first year we had over 80, including workshops. I was there. Would the people get more from a commissioner if [commissioners] were paid more? Not from this commissioner. I didn't take this job for the money. Would I be able to go to more functions if I didn't have to go out and work? Probably, but the rest of the time what would I do, sit in an office?
Q: The city manager has been criticized for his communication skills. Do you believe you are kept informed? The media gets the agenda book before we do. I received a call today on something that will be on the consent agenda for the next meeting. It was a constituent who knew about it before I did, and it's a hot topic. We're not kept in the loop for a lot of things.
Q: The city has mixed experience with managing public housing. Janie Poe is a disaster, and McCown Towers is a delight. What lessons do you draw? Tenants have responsibilities too. When a tenant rents something from an owner, they have big rights as well as responsibilities. I learned at a conference last year in some cases the government might be better off owning the land and subcontracting out [the rest] to private enterprise. I think that would be worth looking into.
Q: What constitutes affordable housing? When we talk affordable housing, we're talking for moderate- to low-middle-income people. The Downtown Partnership people had numbers the other day, and [the cost of downtown affordable housing] is somewhere between $160,000 to $260,000.
Q: If you were king for a day, what one thing would you change in this city? The way people talk. There is a lot of emotion out there around the issues. I would change to where everybody who came into the room for a discussion would be very civil and we got down to business and worked on the solutions. -Stan Zimmerman
Inside the visual arts with Mark Ormond.
Now that Ringling School of Art and Design trustees have approved a decision to "merge" with the Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA), the museum becomes a division of the school-and the founding committee members of the museum become advisors to Ringling president Larry Thompson, working with his development department to raise $20 million for an endowment and retrofitting the 1926 Sarasota High School building (which will continue to be owned by the Sarasota School Board). The museum will occupy the first floor; the school will use the top two floors. Before the merger, SMOA hired Emily Kass, former director of the Tampa Museum, to help with their planning. Board member Wendy Surkis says, "It was fortunate for us that she was available. She was just what we needed at the time."
Mack B, a new gallery, has opened next to Metro Coffee on Osprey Avenue off U.S. 41. Owner Margaret Barnes and director Tobey Albright are selling art as well as furnishings, and Albright hopes the space will become "a place for the exchange of ideas." They're planning forums and discussions as well as performances and projections of videos on the outside wall that faces Osprey. This month will feature an exhibition of the paintings and sculpture of David Garrett.
In Sarasota, there are many artists wanting to show work and not enough spaces willing to show art that may push the boundaries of convention. Other than Selby Gallery at Ringling School and Crossley Gallery (also on the campus), which shows students' work, there is no institution committed to contemporary art. So designers and others have stepped in to provide venues. Bleushift schedules events in its warehouse-like space on Boulevard of the Arts and Lemon, recently featuring photo- and film-based work as well as a performance piece by composer Francis Schwartz. Digital Three Design continues to host shows that blur the boundaries between fine art and popular culture. Peter Paul has opened a space on Palm Avenue, and White Dog Design Studio in the Mira Mar building, also on Palm, has announced it will show artists' work without taking any profit. It seems looking for new art in Sarasota now means searching beyond the traditional.
The Ringling Museum has begun a quiet campaign to acquire a work by James Turrell, an artist who showed two of his light pieces at the museum in the 1999 exhibition Blurring the Boundaries. Museum director John Wetenhall is a huge Turrell fan and would like to have the artist (who has been creating an enormous work of art from the Roden Crater in the Arizona desert) make a work specific to space in the new Searing Wing of the museum, which is nearing completion.
A COUP AT THE CARNIVAL
The Sarasota County Fairgrounds is torn between its past and its future. What does that mean for us?
The annual Sarasota County Fair is a fun event, full of livestock smells, carnies barking, 4-H'ers beaming and rides a-twirling. It's an earthy show mixed with wholesome danger. Just like the folks who produce it.
The Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Association, popularly known as the Fair Board, is a fiefdom, answering only to itself. It rules over 95 acres of prime property south of Fruitville and east of Tuttle. It's not public property, strictly speaking. As long as the Fair Board runs at least one "agricultural event" every year, the property is theirs to use, or misuse, forever. The 25-member board is mostly self-appointing, so outsiders need not apply.
It's probably the most colorful collection of characters in Sarasota County. One member won't remove his cowboy hat. Most are no-nonsense men of the earth, crusty with age and feisty by disposition. There's a leavening of women and younger men, but it takes a tough crowd to judge the steers and push the porkers, making this the last in-town bastion of Sarasota's "ole boys."
The fairground property has long been an eyesore to the Sarasota city commissioners. While it sits along a "gateway entrance" to the city, it's often been the site of huge used-car sales. Until recently, landscaping was nonexistent, the paint was peeling off Robarts Arena, and the marquee outside announced "toughman" competitions as often as bridal shows. Meanwhile, the buildings housing the livestock deteriorated, the "back lot" looked like an abandoned property dump, and the homeless made a "creative condominium" every winter among the Brazilian peppers lining the railroad. Things became so bad there was a coup.
In the past year, there've been more fights on the board than in the arena. My favorite quote from one meeting: "We need to resolve these personality conflicts. In the past 20 years, we've never had any of this. So if you don't have the balls to apologize, I think you should grow some."
The insurgents, led by Rory Martin, emerged victorious. There was a spate of resignations, including the fair's longtime director. Locks were changed, accounting moved into the modern age, and suddenly the insurgents faced a turning point: What did they want to accomplish?
In the year since the coup, much has been done. The trashy back lot was cleaned out, the "jungle" was cut back to a mere screen for the neighbors, a fence was erected to restrain the homeless, rates were raised for use of the grounds, a rodeo returned to town and the Medieval Fair that once was the Ringling Museum's top fund raiser is booked to return to Sarasota at the fairgrounds.
But Robarts Arena is on its last legs. In the last year alone, the air conditioning, lighting and plumbing all required emergency repairs. The insurgents faced a decision: Do they just revert to running a county fair? Or do they replace Robarts with a larger, more modern structure? And maybe solicit a hotel and conference center to the property? The price tag was huge, maybe $40 million.
The problem, as usual, is cash. The Fair Board can stay solvent by running the annual county fair as well as renting the grounds for popular events. Over the years, they've gathered a number of them: the Blues Festival (84 kegs of beer sold), Oktoberfest (141 kegs), Circus Sarasota (alas, dry) and others. But $40 million for improvements? The money's not there.
The insurgents believe their 95 acres (which include the Babe Ruth baseball diamond and the driver's license bureau) can serve a higher public purpose. But to achieve their dream, they need more cash. So the remaining "ole boys" are breaking out of their mold to seek a broader consensus. Whether the community will respond is another question.
The Fair Board envisions an arena big enough to hold a circus. Big enough to hold a high school graduation (believe it or not, there's no place in Sarasota County big enough to hold graduation ceremonies for more than the grads and their parents, preventing their siblings or grandparents or friends from attending). Big enough to hold a large political rally, or a national-caliber craft show. Robarts Arena is too small and too dilapidated for any of these uses.
Now the fighting has moved beyond the Fair Board and out into the community. In November, the Fair Board made a pitch to the Sarasota County Commission, which unanimously sent the fair into a bureaucratic black hole called "staff-to-study-the-issue." It's a hostile black hole, because staff leader Jim Ley, Sarasota County's administrator, is on record saying the fair should pack up and head east of the interstate. For the county commission to send the Fair Board to staff was tantamount to saying, "We don't have the courage to tell you to get lost. But staff does." Completely missing in this mix is the Sarasota City Commission, even though the fairgrounds lie entirely within city limits.
The Fair Board can continue to fight the Brazilian peppers and the homeless, host the beer-drinkers, blues singers and jousters, and annually stage their steer-and-swine show-that's all they need to stay in the black with their nontaxable acreage. But the people behind the coup want to do more than the minimum. They want to be a community resource. And there lies the interesting contradiction.
When a bunch of cowboys and citrus growers want to enrich Sarasota's cultural venue, and nobody in the urban center is interested, what does that mean? How we respond to the coup at the fairgrounds will speak megabytes about who we are as a community. The coup raises major issues confronting us all, city and county residents alike. It's more than a fair. It's an opportunity.-Stan Zimmerman