The recession hit Sarasota hard. But we're back, with some surprising changes in our population and character.
Wake up, Sarasota. The recession is over. At least it's starting to seem that way. They're building houses again, and if people aren't exactly opening new businesses, they're thinking about it. You don't see as many "Room for Rent" signs on the front lawns.
But what an ordeal it's been. According to many national reports, Sarasota was at the epicenter of the mess, a textbook example of what happens when a real estate bubble bursts. Everybody suffered. Many people went bankrupt or into foreclosure (at least we're now all experts in the legal aspects of both procedures). Friendships ended, sometimes in lawsuits and highly publicized trials. Some people—people we all thought were just like you and me—went to jail.
At the beginning it was blamed on the media. Many people said quite vehemently that if the Herald-Tribune would only stop writing stories about how the real estate market was collapsing, then it would stop collapsing. Six months later such stories were unnecessary. The collapse had happened, and we were well on our way to a long, bleak decline.
But now, finally, after all those nights you lay awake in dread, things are starting to feel better. As we look around our city, though it may look the same—of course it looks the same; nothing's been built in six years—it's time to figure out what happened while we had our heads under the covers. What has changed? Disappeared? Sprung up from the ashes?
Some of the changes are the same ones that occurred all over the country. The rise of social media, the decline of print, the electronic revolution. But others are peculiar to Sarasota. They've created a new sense of geography and a new type of resident who has come here to do more than just play golf. The town is more cautious about predicting wonderful things, to be sure, but could it be that a renaissance is on its way? Our natural beauty, plus the arts, plus our leisurely lifestyle may be on the verge of creating the perfect boomer retirement community.
The most important thing Sarasota did during the recession was move. Yes, the city relocated about 10 miles to the northeast. Back in 2007, the center of everything—in a geographic sense—was Sarasota Memorial Hospital on the South Trail. Now it's shifted to University Parkway and Lakewood Ranch. That area was rather out in the country just a few years ago. Now it's crowded, bustling with building, and when the new mall, Benderson's University Town Center, is finished next year, it will be the undisputed retail center of not just Sarasota, but Southwest Florida. It's one of only two big malls being built in the United States right now, and its list of tenants already includes Macy's, Dillard's, and most telling of all, Saks Fifth Avenue, which is moving there from its present location at Westfield Southgate, just south of the hospital. The whole University Park area is now imbued with the sweet smell of success. If you need more convincing, just spend time driving on the parkway, particularly during the height of the season.
The University Parkway corridor, as it's often referred to, is an area of newer homes, many built during the boom. The communities, some gated and some not, have names like Quail Run and Barrington Ridge. They range in price from, say, $175,000 to several million.
The socioeconomic level hovers between middle and upper middle class. Practically all the communities are "deed restricted" and boast as much at their entrances. It's a tactless phrase that summons up memories of excluding certain religions and races, although in the new terminology, it mostly means "No pickup trucks parked overnight in the driveway."
It looks so all-American that it's always surprising to find out just how diverse the population is. When I did a story on Lakewood Ranch last year, I came across people from Argentina, India, Germany and Israel—and that was all on the same block.
University Parkway's victory over the other parts of town is due to a perfect storm of factors and conditions. First of all, it's a great place to live—clean, orderly, riff-raffless, and predictable. You can bike and jog safely. The housing stock is well-built, nicely designed, and very well-priced. The everyday shopping is great, with Target and all the classic American chains. The dining is also mostly chain, and while the high-end franchises have yet to move to the neighborhood, Bonefish Grill, Lee Roy Selmon's, and the Outback Steakhouse—among others—are satisfying and well-patronized. Smaller, more specialized stores are opening in the many shopping plazas that line the parkway and continue into Lakewood Ranch. You can get everything you need for everyday living.
But it's really University Parkway's relationship with I-75 that clinches the deal. It means you can live here and work in Brandon, Tampa or St. Petersburg.
Old-timers complain that University Parkway just doesn't look like Sarasota. It looks like Dallas, Atlanta, or Charlotte with a few more palm trees. There is no hint of a beach. And though many of the communities are beautifully, almost exquisitely, landscaped, they don't have that casual, "it just grew" atmosphere of the older parts of town. But in the new post-recession Sarasota, it's not that University Parkway doesn't look like Sarasota—it's more that Sarasota now looks like University Parkway.
To get a sense of the area's new vitality, have lunch some day at Panera Bread Company in University Walk. It's crowded but not uncomfortably so. You'll see business people having meetings, older couples on healthy diets, younger couples, cops, hip-looking young people. Any restaurant in town would kill for this kind of business, day after day after day.
This is not to denigrate downtown in any way. During the recession, a funny thing happened there, too. It became the most fashionable, hip, desirable neighborhood in Sarasota. But its area is finite. Out at University Parkway there is still undeveloped land, and a lot of it. And that's where the critical mass of Sarasota is now living.
OK, let's move on to Difference No. 2. The boomers are finally starting to arrive, and they're not who we thought they were going to be. Before the recession it was assumed that they would be couples in their 60s from Ohio, who would be slightly more active than the couples from Ohio—now in their 90s—who they were replacing. Then who shows up? A whole new demographic.
Sure, couples from Ohio are still coming, and they're probably in the majority. But also arriving is a new group that we weren't expecting. They are well-educated, somewhat arty, socially liberal, and they're not necessarily married. They have enough money, but they wish they had a little more, and they keep their eyes open for ways to make some—which can mean they'll start a business here after they arrive. Most of them don't play golf, but they do exercise and participate in the sports that are overtaking the traditional golf and tennis—things like rowing, running, kayaking, Pilates, even bird-watching. The arts scene is the real reason we're getting these people.
The presidential election showed how important demographic niches are in America now, and we're getting some of the best. The first group of "niche comers" we attract is artists and academicians. We are just special enough to remove the stigma of "Florida retirement" that these people fear. If you taught at Harvard for 40 years, moving to Fort Lauderdale or Orlando isn't cool. But Sarasota—with its museum and opera and ballet—is perfectly acceptable.
And once here they can develop what are called "dessert careers." Look at Frank Galati. For years, Galati was one of the leading theatrical directors in the country, with a Tony award for The Grapes of Wrath. After he moved to Sarasota several years ago, he developed a new career directing plays for Asolo Rep. And with the pressures of commercial theater removed, and access to the impressive theatrical resources in town, he's coming up with some extraordinary work, in the process raising the reputation of the Asolo. His chamber version of My Fair Lady last year was an enormous success, and this year he's repeating it with 1776. Expect to see more of these situations in the years to come—major talents land here and get involved with the local arts scene.
The election also showed the growing importance of single women in American life, and this raises an interesting question. Where do these single women retire? It turns out that Sarasota is perfect for them. Like Freud, I cannot tell you what women want, but a good friend of mine, a woman in her 60s who had a very successful career in New York, is planning to settle here for, as far as I can figure, the thrift shopping. The other pluses in her book: the bar at the Hyatt, Video Renaissance, going out to eat, often twice a day, and, as corny as it sounds, walking on the beach.
I thought she must be an anomaly, but when she was here during the election, she went to volunteer at Obama headquarters, and it turned out everybody was like her. We all know this woman—well over 50, concerned about social issues, "artistic," gray-haired, dressed in ethnic-style clothes with lots of Navajo jewelry. Well, guess what—she's moving to Sarasota.
And she'll fit right in. We've always been a somewhat woman-centric town, what with our parties and all our helping organizations. Women run many of these organizations, and many of them are single. Here it's quite common for women to go to parties and events alone. Lack of a partner is no hindrance. In fact, many of the married women go alone. Hubby is often much older and refuses to go out at night.
The third demographic niche is the gay community. While Sarasota may not be famous as a LBGT resort like Key West and Fort Lauderdale, it has always attracted a sizeable share of the market. What is bringing them in as retired boomers is the town's accepting attitude. The judgmental religious right has never had a big influence here, and it is well recognized that you can't get anywhere in this town with a homophobic attitude. Today, the town has many gay individuals in high-profile positions, and gay couples can be found at all social levels.
"The gay newcomers hear about us through word of mouth," says Jim Jablonski, a realtor for Michael Saunders & Company. "The big draw is certainly the arts." But there is also a whole gay social structure for them to fit into, not just the ubiquitous cocktail and dinner parties, but an influential church (Metropolitan Community Church) and activities (like a gay bowling league) and clubs (my favorite: a dinning club called ROMEO—Romantic Older Men Eating Out).
Jim and his cohorts at the gay realtors' network (yes, there is such an organization) help ease their clients' way into the community, and introduce them to gay and gay-friendly contractors, mortgage brokers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, and, of course, pool boys.
Other big changes? The 2011 selection of Siesta Beach as the best in the country has given an enormous push to the tourism business, which set records last year. At last we've been validated, and we can coast on this for years to come. The tourists may stay for less time, but there are more of them, and they come year-round, from all over the world. And they're creating all sorts of business opportunities, from the explosion in destination weddings to the appearance of pedi-cabs.
And whoever thought Sarasota would become a sports center? It's always been big on golf and tennis and boating, but now there are two major rowing facilities and what seems like a never-ending stream of tournaments and meets in all sports, with visiting teams packing the hotels at the airport and out by the Interstate. IMG Academies in Bradenton attracts pro athletes, students—and their parents, who often buy vacation homes here—from all over the world. And this summer, the Sarasota YMCA is hosting the Pan Am Masters' Swimming Championships, which will bring in thousands of athletes and their supporters, many from the Caribbean and Latin America, introducing our area to a whole new market.
But the biggest change in post-recession Sarasota is a change in attitude. Just look what happened here at the magazine. Back at the height of the boom we were bought by a national company that specialized in publishing high-end luxury magazines. The company was convinced that Sarasota was poised to turn into the next enclave of the super-rich, who needed a publication to suggest how they might spend their money in ways that really showed it off. They took this mission very seriously; one of their top executives bore the title of "Chief Luxury Officer."
For a while we became authorities on private jets, the latest Lamborghinis and ultra-conspicuous consumption. We did our best, and sometimes it was rather fun. But it felt false. It wasn't us, and it wasn't Sarasota.
Well, the conglomerate is gone. They're a little bruised and battered, and the Chief Luxury Officer has been laid off. But we're still here, now owned by our original founder, a Bradenton boy through and through. And we're back to doing what we do best—writing about the area we love, a place where luxury is just part of the story, and welcoming all the artists, single women and gay people—not to mention the couples from Ohio—who are moving into the University Park area and rowing like crazy when they aren't at the opera or volunteering at Resurrection House. After six awful years, Sarasota has found its footing once again.
Contributing editor Robert Plunket writes our Real Estate Junkie column and blog; he's also a novelist and contributor to such national publications as The New York Times and The Atlantic.