Sarasota is a beautiful place, but it’s also extremely weird.
That’s the conclusion of journalist Brad Edmondson, and he’s not referring to a mayor who jumps into shark tanks. Edmondson, who grew up in Nokomis and is the former editor of American Demographic magazine, is talking about the peculiar population make-up of our city. We’ve always been a strange place demographically, he says, older, whiter and richer than most of the nation, with an economy stoked not by wage earners but by retirees who come here to spend their accumulated wealth on leisurely days in the sun. But in “The New Abnormal” in this issue, Edmondson reports that the housing crash and immigration are beginning to alter the familiar face of our city.
Most importantly, we’re not growing anymore—and that’s a knockout punch for a place whose prosperity has been almost entirely linked to the care and housing of wealthy newcomers. At press time, Edmondson had just seen a new batch of national studies. “It’s all bad news,” he says. And it’s especially bad for baby boomers—the group that was supposed to provide our next new crop of rich retirees.
In 2004, Edmondson says, the average net worth of American households headed by a person between 55 and 64 was $315,000. In 2009, that net worth dropped to $160,000. “Many households are going to hit 65 with nothing but Social Security and Medicare to depend on,” he says.
Some baby boomers will still have the resources to retire to Sarasota, of course. “But the pool has gotten a lot smaller, and the competition to attract them has gotten a lot bigger,” Edmondson says.
Instead, we’ll be greeting more newcomers of another kind—young, working Latino families. Indeed, they’re already coming. In 2009, the number of people who moved here from other countries was almost as high as the number who came from other parts of the United States. “They’re seeking economic opportunity, and they’re overwhelmingly from Central and South America,” says Edmondson.
Their arrival will spark social changes—and challenges. Our wealthy retirees, for example, have consistently supported new taxes for public education; will they continue to do this when many schoolchildren come from a cultural and ethnic background so different from their own?
Communities all over the country are struggling with similar issues, from integrating new immigrants into their culture to “trying to figure out how to get out of this [economic] hole,” says Edmondson. And though here in Sarasota most of our conversations have been about diversifying beyond tourism and retirement, Edmondson believes it might be more effective to strengthen those economic engines.
“Nobody can say for sure when retirement migration is going to start up again,” he says. “But it’s a sure bet the post-recession crop of snowbirds will be different. There will be fewer rich ones and many more who are willing to try new housing and lifestyle choices in order to meet their tighter budgets.”
If we’re smart, we’ll come up with new strategies and products that appeal to these budget-conscious boomers. But even if they change the way they live here—more small homes and co-housing, fewer McMansions and ultra-luxury cars—what won’t change, Edmondson emphasizes, is the reason they come.
“Sarasota has assets most communities would kill to have—clean air and water, open space and wildlife habitat, a thriving cultural scene, and above all, beautiful public beaches,” he says. These are powerful, proven magnets.
In fact, what will save the new Sarasota is exactly what sustained the old—our unique natural and cultural assets. In tough times, it’s easy to value tangible new jobs and dollars over abstractions like “quality of life.” But to stop protecting and investing in our priceless assets would be a grave mistake. (Which is why our new governor’s agenda of weakening or even eliminating regulations on everything from water quality to new development should make Sarasota very nervous.)
“Don’t give away the things people move here for,” Edmondson warns. “Don’t sacrifice what makes you special.”
Pam Daniel, Editorial director
From Our Readers
"I absolutely love the new magazine [October 2010]—everything, from the design to the articles. I’ve been reading Sarasota Magazine for 30 years and advertising for 10, and I have never seen anything so fresh and new. You have captured exactly what makes Sarasota so unique." —Jack Peffley, Sarasota
"I am always delighted to receive my Sarasota Magazine up here in Canada. Over the summer months I always dream of coming back down to my beach. The cover photo for your October issue is absolutely adorable. What a cute kid. It reminds me of my son (now 20 and 6’4”). He spent many years looking just like that on Siesta Key Beach. Now he goes down with a girlfriend and a kite-board—and without me!" —Yvonne Klima, Toronto
"The new look is terrific. The mix of long and short pieces is inviting—and effective. This is a great example of 'If it ain’t broke, fix it.' Sarasota certainly wasn’t “broke,” but you sure did 'fix it.'” —J. Robert Parkinson, Sarasota""
"I have been subscribing to your once wonderful magazine for about four years. My husband and I are twice a year visitors to Siesta Key. I really do not like the new format. While the child on the cover is adorable, I found the whole concept confusing. His oversized fishing rod cut the page off and made me think I should be peeling that bit back to reveal the scent underneath (as in fashion magazines.) I think that when my subscription comes up for renewal I will not be resubscribing. You have turned the magazine into a very pedestrian product. I am so disappointed." —Carole Young, Toronto
"I love the entire October issue. I was thinking of going down to the Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce to see if they are planning to have a stack of them available or do some reprints for direct mail and/or general distribution. Your team did an amazing job of capturing what our island is about and all the reasons we love Anna Maria." —Janet Aubry, Anna Maria Island
I was happy to open the November issue of Sarasota and read the story, “Havana 1960,” by Robert Plunket. I always read his articles, but this was particularly good and interesting, and of course, well written in Bob’s signature humorous style. I loved it." —Susan Kelley, Sarasota
"Today the latest Sarasota Magazine arrived in my mailbox, and I have just sat in the sun to look through for a few moments after work. Bliss. The magazine is our tie to the best place in America. We have land downtown, but no fixed abode yet. One day, we hope.
"I also wanted to ask after Bob Plunket. I hope that he is steadily recovering from his heart surgery. Tell him that his murder-mystery tale [“Decorating Can Be Murder,” serialized throughout 2009] was gripping and fun, and he ought to do more.
"You had a terrific piece some time ago about seawalls and a prescient piece about offshore oil drilling, published before the recent spill. And John McCarthy’s story about walking all of the beaches [December 2008] was great.
"I also liked the piece [October 2009] where you chose your favorite houses—it introduced some hidden gems that were not necessarily the biggest or most luxurious but which had charm and interest." —Steph King, Vancouver
PRAISE FOR PLATINUM
Sarasota Magazine’s August Platinum issue arrived today, and I read it almost cover to cover. Pam Daniel’s editorial was fabulous, as were the articles.
"What Pam said applies not only to fine art museums, but also to historic sites, children’s museums, botanical gardens, and science museums. Historic Spanish Point, where I am executive director, is one of three nationally accredited museums in Sarasota (Ringling and Selby Gardens are the others), plus we have G.WIZ, Mote, and the South Florida Museum in nearby Bradenton. These great centers of learning are also “worth discovering and rediscovering all over again.”
"With appreciation for all you do for our community, Linda Mansperger, Sarasota