The event had all the trappings of a typical University Club business luncheon: iced tea glasses sweating onto tablecloths; name tags, snazzy ties, high heels; polite handshakes and introductions between strangers; effusive hugs and air kisses between the better acquainted.
But it was different. For one thing, there was a stand-by list of people hoping to get in. For another, almost everyone was in their 20s and early 30s, and they had gathered to listen to nothing sexier than community leaders talk about education. It was the second networking luncheon of one of the city's hottest new organizations—the Young Professionals Group—and it had sold out within two days. Standing in the lobby amid the palpable energy of these 130 voluble, well-coifed under-40s, anyone would have to rethink the stereotype that Sarasota is entirely peopled by senior citizens. It's an age group that has shot to attention over the past year as the people to watch.
They congregate at Fred's, Silver Cricket and Mattisons for drinks and late dinners on weekend nights and meet up on Saturday mornings at the downtown farmers market, dogs often in tow, for shopping and perhaps mimosas and brunch afterwards. They're cleaning up rundown neighborhoods in search of affordable downtown housing. Their faces are popping up on volunteer committees, neighborhood groups and board meetings. The realtor who just sold your house, the broker who flipped your stock or the doctor who operated on your cataracts may be the same age as your kids.
"This is real," says Tim Clarke, owner of Clarke Advertising & Public Relations and chairman of the board of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, the YPG's parent organization. "And it's indicative of the youthfulness that is growing in Sarasota."
It's an interesting development for a city with a reputation as ideal for affluent retirees but not so suited for 20- or 30-somethings. And old people still dominate the city's demographic. More young people between 20 and 44 live here every year-81,875 in the 2000 census compared to 78,939 in the 1990 census. But by 2000, that age group was only 25 percent of the total population of Sarasota County compared to 28.4 percent in 1990.
For anyone caught up in the buzz surrounding Richard Florida's agenda-setting book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Sarasota's more visible youth contingent is an excellent development. Florida argues that to thrive, metro areas must attract creative professionals; in particular, young people, because they are the "workhorses" of a prosperous city, and because their lifestyles typically reflect that of this "creative class." Cities around the country are trying to attract the young, since there are only 40 million people between the ages of 25 and 34 to replace the nation's 78 million aging baby boomers. So although Sarasota County's median age remains 50.5, the fact that Sarasota's YPG has 500 members in its still-growing database is exciting.
It's downright thrilling for long-time businesspeople like Wells Purmort, who said the development is something parents like him have long wanted. When Purmort headed the chamber in the 1980s, he lamented that Sarasota had great schools, but never provided the working options to keep kids here after graduation.
"We needed to create a business climate which would encourage the youth of our community to come back and live in the community they were raised in," says Purmort.
Larry Cavalluzzi is one of those kids who stayed home. The 27-year-old recently started his own company, SignZoo, with his 26-year-old partner, Todd Stuart, and is active in the Chamber of Commerce and the YPG.
"I've been to a lot of places on vacation, but I've always come back to Sarasota," says Cavalluzzi, who has a year-old baby boy. "Our roots are here. There's a lot of young energy now; I have friends who come to town and think this is a hip place to be."
Many Sarasota youngsters who went away for college and careers in big cities are coming back and bringing tastes they developed in larger metros for cosmopolitan nightlife and hip hangouts. Hal Christensen, 28, worked in Houston, Columbus and Tampa before returning to help run his father's restaurant, Harry's Continental Kitchen, with an eye to future expansions. Architect Javi Suarez, 31, returned home after six years in Los Angeles to work with his father and raise his future family here, and maybe shake up the local architectural scene a bit.
For each Hal and Javi, there are others who selected Sarasota out of any number of places where they could have lived, attracted by its natural beauty, arts scene and growth potential. Matt Orr, a 27-year-old realtor with Michael Saunders & Co., moved here from youthful Asheville, N.C. after investigating several Florida cities.
"Nothing compared to here," says Orr. "I liked the café-type lifestyle. And being in real estate, I recognized the potential. It made sense to be at the beginning of a growth spurt."
Benjamin Davis, 35, who was running a medical practice in Reno, Nevada, when he was recruited to run the Manatee/Sarasota Eye Clinic, says potential for young people here, especially in the health field, has increased tremendously. "Sarasota is a very easy recruit for young doctors," says Davis, citing the lack of a state income tax and better education in this county. "Having a family is reasonable here, and there's a natural beauty you can't put a price on."
Tim and Melanie Kasper moved here from Minneapolis in March 2003, and have already become members of four organizations and started three businesses between them-Golden Openings of Florida, Yoga Party and Organic Baskets-in addition to two careers.
"We felt like this was an area where we could get involved," Tim Kasper, 34, says. "People who live here are open to new people."
Many are here simply to work, to gain experience and sharpen resumes in a small market before heading to brighter prospects. But like the Kaspers, the majority of these enthusiastic 20 and 30-somethings have come here to find a home, one in which they are determined to have a voice.
Bougainvillea blooms from terracotta pots near Andrea Seager's green-and-lavender cottage in Gillespie Park. Across the road, a baby's swing hangs from a tree in front of a charming 1920's bungalow. It's a neighborhood that Seager and her husband, Michael, often traverse on their tandem bike on their way to the Saturday morning farmers market or to Main Street for breakfast. And it's a far cry from the blighted street Seager found when she moved from a Bradenton subdivision in search of a more urban lifestyle.
"I had a stomach ache the first two years," says Seager, 39. She was afraid of the crack dealers, her accumulating debt and her complete lack of expertise in home renovation-but this was one of the only affordable locations downtown. Now, the Seagers have renovated and rented out several properties on their street. She'd love to see other young people follow suit. "As we've started displacing the slumlords, some of the new landlords find that young people are willing to take a chance and live down here," Seager says.
Here, Seager says you can still buy a bungalow for about $130,000 -a bargain in Sarasota where there's little available for less than $300,000, a price out of most first-time homebuyers' range. But hurry before the neighborhood gentrifies; one Gillespie Park property listed for $225,000 was under contract within a day, says Orr.
"We've got real estate that's so expensive that young professionals can't afford to live here," says Kirstin Severs, 30, a vice president of investments at Smith Barney and a YPG-er.
But housing may be a moot point.
"If you're not in the service industry or don't have your own business, it's tough out here," says Five O'Clock Club owner George Generosa, who has raised his children here and sees many of their contemporaries at his bar.
When Gary Garner moved to Sarasota in his early 20s, he rounded Mound Street, saw the bay and fell in love. Since then, the 39-year-old Garner has been in real estate, owned a medical company, and now owns Low Key Charters, Inc. "So many people I know in their early 20s and 30s can't find a job unless it's in a restaurant," Garner says. "Something needs to be done to keep them here and keep the economy vibrant."
The YPG was the brainchild of Ray Villares, 28, of GravityFree, and Eric Massey, 32, of Michael Saunders & Co. The pair called friends they thought might be interested in creating a networking organization for young people-Orr, Drayton Saunders of Michael Saunders & Co., Kay Miller of News Channel 40, Ron Turner from the Greater Sarasota Area Chamber of Commerce and Severs, who recalls the feverish brainstorming over cocktails at the Ovo Café. "We said, let's try and call all the cool people we know in town and see if they'll come to a party."
That party was the YPG's first evening social, and Orr said they anticipated about 60 people. They ended up with 250 enthusiastic young people shoulder-to-shoulder in Ovo Café that night.
"That's when we realized we had a following, and a very short window of opportunity to change the concept of what people in Sarasota think young people care about," says Severs. "Our generation is lackadaisical. We think our voice doesn't matter. But if we do have a unified voice, we can make a difference."
The group has quickly expanded. It's now a program of the chamber's Small Business Council. YPG members handle fundraising, a speaker series, community outreach and event planning. There is a downtown liaison, a government liaison and a media liaison.
"We're not just a bunch of young punks who care only about having fun and making money," says Aimee Chouinard, 32, of Design Fusion. YPG members or "supporters" must put in a mandatory five hours of community service; its focus charities are Booker Middle School, Every Child, Inc., Habitat For Humanity, Humane Society and Multiple Sclerosis Society. They refer clients to each other, and serve as a clearinghouse of information for each other and for new young businesspeople seeking to relocate here.
Seems to be a winning concept. "Before the YPG, it was really hard in real estate to break into the scene," says Orr. "I was the new kid." Meeting other young professionals who respected his work gave Orr the break he needed; when he met Chouinard, she gave him a referral and within a week, he had written a contract.
"I think the energy from the first event is still with us," says Craig Colburn, an attorney with Norton, Hammersley, Lopez & Skokos, and the government review council liaison for YPG. Although the YPG does not endorse political views, Colburn, who is also general counsel to the chamber, keeps members apprised of government developments he thinks may interest them.
"I came here because it appealed to me," says Colburn, who moved from Atlanta with his wife and two small daughters. "It would be a bit presumptuous for me to say I want to change everything. Having said that, there are some decisions being made by our leaders."
One such issue he's alerted YPG-ers about is that of Pop's Sunset Grill, a Nokomis bar and restaurant facing a noise controversy. A neighbor who built his home next to the bar filed complaints with the county about the live music played at Pop's every night, causing the Sarasota County zoning enforcement department to order the music stopped.
"If you can't get music, you lose a lot of people," says Molly DeMeulenaere, 25, Groove Therapy ballroom dancing instructor and co-founder of srqcitizens.com, a group whose mission is to raise residents' awareness of local issues. DeMeulenaere and Jennifer Sweat, 30, lead singer of the popular local band Jennifer and the Venturas, started their campaign last spring against proposed stricter noise ordinances, and have already collected hundreds of signatures.
Many young professionals say they'd like to see more places to hear live music as well as an upscale dancing venue and more cutting-edge art.
"We were so tired of places closing up at 10. If you haven't found a place to do something by eight or nine on a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday, there are only a few options," says Sweat.
Rick Skolrood, 41, and his girlfriend, Kindra Koeck, 28, might be able to help: they've started Movies and Shakers, a film-themed networking group. Every second Tuesday, members (now averaging 100) meet for drinks and dinner at a different downtown restaurant, followed by the screening of an independent film at Burns Court. This year, Movies and Shakers will begin awarding seed money grants to aspiring filmmakers, students and arts-in-education programs in Florida.
"We're trying to create additional affordable activities, being able to get young professionals to gather year-round and not just during the busy season," Skolrood says.
"It gets frustrating to see decisions made by people who live here three months out of the year," Severs says. If we can create a real base group-people who say 'this is my community, I want to be here for 20 years'-that's when we'll see things happen."
That might already be happening, partly due to the existence of groups like the YPG, according to Turner, Chamber of Commerce workforce and small business manager and staff liaison to the YPG. "We see it as an economic development tool for us," says Turner. "I don't think it's a flash in the pan; these people are already well connected. Very active. There's lots of volunteering."
There are calls for change, sure, but wrapped inside the activism is a love for the aspects of Sarasota that brought these young people here: the arts, beaches, natural beauty. There's little hard-core rebellion; the 20- and 30-somethings talk of the older generation with the same respect and lack of skepticism they say has been accorded them. In most cases, there's just a desire to stretch the boundaries of the status quo to include them and leave the door open for future generations.
"It's important that as we get older, we're still inviting people this age group to get involved, not just picking up our age group and moving on," says Sweat. "It's important to maintain a relationship with young people and keep it alive."
"We need to stake our claim now and make sure we don't get left out," says Seager. "It's affordable now. We can mold the city into what we want it to be. In 10 years, we won't be able to afford to relocate our businesses to Rosemary District or live in Gillespie Park. This is our chance to recreate the city. Now is the chance. It's now or never."