Money Talks

Inside Sarasota Wealth: The (Multi)Millionaire Next Door

Sarasota is attracting well-heeled newcomers at one of the fastest rates in the nation. Business journalist Rich Rescigno reports on who they are--and why they're coming.

By Rich Rescigno March 1, 2014


Wealth voyeurism is a wonderful thing, at least for the media industry.

Consider the popularity of the annual Forbes lists of the world's richest people (current champ: Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim Helu, with $73 billion), TV's long-running Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the movie The Wolf of Wall Street and the torrent of newspaper, magazine and Internet articles on rich athletes, actors, comedians, singers, hedge-fund chiefs, CEOs, politicians, investment bankers, lottery winners and heirs, preferably misbehaving ones.

Sarasota has its share of notable rich, including mega-author Stephen King, TV reality-mayhem king Jerry Springer, entertainer Rosie O'Donnell, political gurus Mary Matalin and James Carville, baseball star Joey Votto, and investor Jeffrey Vinik, noted for owning the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team and for recently tearing down a $4 million, 6,100-square-foot home on St. Armands Key to make way for something, presumably, much less confining.

The typical person of wealth in Sarasota, however, is much more likely to be a millionaire-next-door type who built and sold a small business, had a lucrative career as a corporate executive, or simply did well in some profession and then moved here. Few covet the limelight. Says Michael Saunders, head of the real estate company that bears her name: "In Sarasota, there are some extremely wealthy people—there's actually more wealth here today than there was pre-2005—but most don't want to flaunt their wealth. If they wish for happy anonymity, they can find it here. If they don't, there's not a more social town."

How many wealthy—or in Wall Street's tortured parlance, high-net-worth—individuals live here? According to Phoenix Marketing International, a Rhinebeck, N.Y., firm that tracks affluence trends for its clients, the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton federal metropolitan statistical area has 17,005 millionaire households, which it defines as those with at least $1 million in investable assets, not counting real estate or employer-sponsored retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s. And 2,450 of these have $5 million or more. Based on real estate prices, family income and other factors, it's likely that Sarasota County has at least 35 percent to 40 percent of these households, or 5,950 to 6,800 in the $1 million group and 860 to 980 in the $5 million. And Phoenix's definition is conservative; other wealth watchers do include sponsored retirement plans and properties (except primary residences) in measuring assets. Doing that would balloon the numbers significantly.

In any case, there are a lot of well-off folks in Sarasota, and many are here because of a powerful national trend.

Like water, armies and politicians, money seeks the path of least resistance. With no tax on income, estates, capital gains, dividends or interest, and a homestead tax break on primary homes, the Sunshine State attracts a flood of greenbacks from the moneyed.

In fact, from 1992 through 2010, Florida benefited the most of any state from a net shift of $2 trillion in adjusted gross income that took place across the United States, says Travis Brown, author of the book How Money Walks and proprietor of, a Website that details these flows. Florida's take, Brown calculates, was $95.61 billion—about 3.5 times as much as No. 2 Arizona—mainly from people fleeing high-tax states in the Northeast and Midwest.

Brown, an entrepreneur and political consultant, argues that lower tax rates produce a healthier economy. His numbers aren't based on ideology, however, but rather facts—national population-migration figures from the U.S. Census Bureau and the latest available comprehensive anonymous IRS data on adjusted gross income, drawn from millions of yearly federal income-tax returns.

Adjusted gross income—aka AGI—includes wages, commissions, dividends, business profits, royalties, alimony, inheritances, taxable interest, rents, bonuses, just about everything that can be considered income. It doesn't directly measure wealth, but it underlies and creates it. "I call it working wealth, and where it goes is very important to a region's overall economic health and its residents' ability to build real wealth," Brown says.

In an exclusive study done at Sarasota Magazine's request, Brown ranked the performance of individual counties. It showed that during the period he examined, which included stretches of both boom and bust, Sarasota County ranked No. 4 in Florida in terms of attracting AGI on a total basis, behind Palm Beach (Palm Beach, Boca Raton), Collier (Naples, Marco Island), and Lee (Sanibel, Captiva, Boca Grande) counties. More impressive, in the entire nation, which has nearly 3,100 counties and equivalents, Sarasota ranked eighth. However, if you divide the amount Sarasota attracted by the net population growth in 1992-2010, the county emerges as No. 2 in the U.S., behind only Collier County, where Naples in particular attracts money like Kate Upton attracts men. In other words, the two counties lured the wealthiest of the wealthy moving anywhere in the nation, although Collier by far was the overall winner. (See table, below left.)

And the statistics probably are underestimations because adjusted gross income includes only taxable items, and a substantial chunk of the income of many affluent or wealthy individuals—especially retirees—comes from municipal bonds that Uncle Sam doesn't tax.

Some of that $95.61 billion shifted to the Sunshine State because companies moved here or were started here. But the biggest part of this—precisely how much is unclear—probably came from retirees and part-time residents who list Florida as their home state to claim tax benefits. How else to explain why, combined, Sarasota, Lee, and Collier counties attracted $26.35 billion in net AGI—about $1.4 billion more than all of Texas, a populous low-tax state that isn't a retiree mecca, compared with Florida, but, more often than not, had a vibrant economy and added hundreds of thousands of jobs during the stretch Brown looked at?

Sarasota got a kick-start once the smoke from the financial crisis began to clear. Says University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith: "Wealth in Sarasota, Naples, Miami tends to correlate with financial assets much more than in most other parts of Florida. And the financial markets recovered a lot faster than the housing market did. Unlike the typical Jack-and-Jill retiree, who had to wait to sell a house in order to move to Florida, these folks could move here more quickly."

When radio talk-show hosts chatter about "one percenters," they're referring to people who make more than 99 percent of all U.S. taxpayers; this year, you'll need to earn about $400,000 to be in this elite group. There are undoubtedly a number of these fortunate souls on Longboat Key, in zip code 34228, which IRS statistics indicate has the highest average adjusted gross income per family in the Sarasota area: $200,721. For all of Sarasota County, Census figures show 6,402 families with incomes of at least $200,000. (The agency doesn't break the numbers down further.) But again, income and wealth aren't the same thing. Furthermore, high income is combustible, as many mortgage brokers, bankers, real estate agents to the stars, and builders learned when the 2008-2009 financial crisis erupted. One U.S. Treasury Department study found, for example, that fewer than half of those in the top 1 percent of income in 1996 were still there in 2005.

SoSo what do you really need to be considered wealthy?

Says Matthew Otto, a Sarasota investment adviser whose Otto Group, part of SunTrust Investment Services, oversees about $400 million in assets: "I look at high-net-worth individuals as having

$3 million to $10 million or more. That's the largest percentage of my client base. I have about 10 percent that are affluent—meaning as little as $100,000 up to $1 million-$3 million—60 percent, high-net-worth, and 30 percent ultra-high-net worth; that's $20 million-plus."

As for origins, "Most of our clients are from the Northeast," says Otto. "Historically, Sarasota has attracted lots of folks from the Midwest, but I'd say more Northeast now. We've always drawn a lot of Canadians and Germans. But I've now got some large Italian clients; they're fleeing Europe and its underlying economic problems. They love Sarasota; they love Florida. And another trend we're beginning to see is people coming from the West Coast, Beverly Hills, L.A. My guess is that's because of the unfriendly tax environment in California," where the top marginal state income tax rate can be 13.3 percent for the very wealthy.

How much does it take for Sarasotans to feel comfortable in retirement? "Five million dollars now seems to be the number that lets people think that they can get through it the way they want to," says Martin Kossoff, president of Kerkering Barberio Financial Services in downtown Sarasota. "That number has gone up as the Fed has pushed down interest rates."

Indeed, $1 million invested now in decent-quality municipal bonds might produce $40,000-$45,000 a year in tax-free income; 20 years ago, it would have generated $70,000-$75,000. And that doesn't figure in the corrosive effects of two decades of inflation.

Still, Otto says, these days, "typically, you have a retiree who's happy with a burn rate of 4 percent. If he has $5 million, he's perfectly happy to live off $200,000 a year of that and have us grow his total portfolio enough to offset inflation and preserve his capital. The net return number we target is 7 percent, 8 percent. Hit that most of the time and, even if bad things happen, you'll be OK over the long term." He adds that when the stock market is on a tear, as it was last year, "They'll say, 'We're up 10 percent or 12 percent, but the market's up 15 percent, can we reach for a little bit more?' Then we have to remind them that they've told us they want to minimize risk, but want to live comfortably and preserve their assets. If they want some excitement, we can put them into some of the new technologies, like 3D printing, nanotechnology, or something else, but with only 5 percent of their assets. If it blows up, they'll still be OK. And if it works out, they'll have some nice upside."

Kossoff puts it another way: ''These people generally are not looking for us to do spectacular things. The first order of business is: 'Don't screw up.'" Clients can be demanding in other ways, however: "It's mostly with service-related issues: estate planning, sick family members, kids that need help, parents that need help, help moving into an assisted-living facility, even buying or leasing a car." One of Kossoff's colleagues saved a client $5,000 last year by negotiating down the price of a new Honda.

In many cities, certain locales—Chelsea in London, Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, Fisher Island in Miami—scream "expensive." Sarasota is more eclectic; pricey homes can be found in many neighborhoods, although waterfront properties predominate.

Says Michael Saunders: "There is no absolute 'best address' in Sarasota. When you compare us to Naples or Palm Beach, you have many more choices in terms of waterfront living. We have barrier islands, from Longboat Key to Siesta to Casey to Manasota Key, all offering Gulf views or bay views and a private setting. Or you can hop over to the mainland, and choose waterfront between downtown and the museum because the husband or wife travels a lot and wants to be near the airport. We have many people who choose Harbor Acres because it's a family neighborhood and has a real sense of community. The same is true for Cherokee Park."

Roger Pettingell, a Longboat Key-based realty broker who's been Coldwell Banker's top sales agent in Florida for three of the past five years, says most top-tier home buyers now want "a new place where everything's been done. You might call it a place with chocolate on the door, a place they can just move into, without having to tear something down, wait a year for a new house to be built, or spend two years renovating a property that, in the end, might not be exactly what they want."

In addition, he says, many buyers aren't that interested anymore in huge houses of, say, 8,000 or 9,000 square feet or more. But they're not minimalists, either; 5,000 square feet is fine. And, Pettingell observes, "They're willing to pay up for what they want, even though prices aren't as low as they were in the worst of times [after the real estate bubble burst in 2006-2007 and the Great Recession took hold]. Back then, nobody knew how much further prices would fall. Nobody wants to catch a falling knife, so people held off buying. Now, they don't want to miss out on an improving market. And prices are still 20 percent below the peak, meaning that what someone paid $5 million for back in 2005 can now be had for $4 million."

That kind of thinking has kept the market humming. In 2013, according to a tally done for Michael Saunders & Co. by Trendgraphix, an independent research outfit, sales of 227 single-family homes and 118 condos priced at $1 million or more closed in Sarasota County. And, says Saunders, "About 60 percent of the deals at all price points today are being done with cash."

One impetus for luxury-home purchases is Bradenton's burgeoning IMG Academy, which offers a pricey sports/academic curriculum that attracts students from the U.S. and about 80 other countries. Depending on the grade and sport, annual tuition can approach $75,000 for boarding students. The well-heeled foreigners who can afford this often want a second home in Sarasota, to keep track of their offspring.

The luxury market's strength is even reviving downtown condo construction, moribund since the real estate crash. Among the projects planned are the Sansara, Aqua and Jewel towers, where it will be easy to drop a million and a half or even $4 million on a unit. For something completely different, condo shoppers can consider the Q townhouses, being built at 1750 Ringling Blvd. by Jebco Ventures. These condos, each with two or three floors of living space, start around $400,000, and would fit in nicely on Manhattan's east side.

Kurt Lucas of JKL Design Group, which designed the project, liked his handiwork so much—he terms it "a little bit of mid-century, a little bit of modern, a little bit of everything"—that he's buying a $1 million, 4,000-square-foot unit for himself and his life partner. Remember the old saying? The best restaurant is the one where the chef eats his own cooking.

One of Sarasota's paradoxes is that, while wealth abounds here, neediness does, too; 12.4 percent of the county's residents earn so little that their incomes are below the federal poverty line. And 51 percent of its schoolchildren, notes Teri Hansen, former CEO of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, qualify for free breakfasts, compared with about 20 percent nationally.

Offsetting this, somewhat, is the region's unusually robust charitable community—one of the largest for any county of its size in the United States and one particularly attuned to societal problems and the arts.

As of its last audit, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation had $233 million in assets. The area's other major philanthropic organization, the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, had a bit more: $239 million. The only larger such institution in Florida is the Community Foundation for Northeast Florida in Jacksonville, which has about $257 million, but draws from a population over twice as large as Sarasota County's 386,000.

Hansen attributes the generosity of the wealth community here, in part, to the "I-75-corridor syndrome"—one of the highways used by motorists driving to Sarasota from America's heartland. "We have a lot of people from Cleveland, other parts of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana—the whole Midwest, where there's a deep tradition of giving," she says. The philanthropic effort here also benefits from a sense of urgency "because many of our donors are in their 80s or 90s; they know that their time is limited. These people want to leave some sort of meaningful legacy."

Her counterpart at the Community Foundation of Sarasota, Roxie Jerde, says: "Many people who come here, whether full- or part-time, do so because there's a real sense of place and community; Sarasota has much more to offer than tennis, golf and beautiful beaches. The more you feel a sense of community, the more you're willing to support that community."

Three examples of that support:

Betsy and Bill Roe, who founded and then sold a tech-industry supplier in Minnesota—part of the year, they live in Minneapolis; the rest of the year in a high-rise downtown condo with terrific views—tutor people seeking to get a high school equivalency diploma in Newtown, one of the city's roughest areas. They also serve as volunteer guardian ad litems (legal representatives) for three children, 2, 3 and 5 years old, who have been removed from their families. This involves representing them not only in legal proceedings, but also in most aspects of their lives, with foster parents, doctors, social workers; you name it. "It's a tough road, but a fulfilling one," Bill Roe says. "We've become attached to the children. Not only do we feel a responsibility with them; we want to see them succeed."

Harry Leopold, a retired investment banker who was drawn to the city 25 years ago in part by its cultural offerings, this season is paying all costs, including lunch and tickets, to send 5,000 Sarasota high school students to Asolo Rep productions, including The Grapes of Wrath. Previously, he did the same for students at Booker High School to see La Traviata at the Sarasota Opera House. "Afterwards," he recalls with a laugh, "one of them told me that he thought it would suck, but he was surprised by how much he liked it."

Felice Schulaner, a former executive at Coach, the handbag maker, retired to Sarasota from New York after getting a windfall when that company went public in 2000— "hit with a lucky stick," as her boss at the time joked. She says she fell in love with the city while a student at New College. A donor to many causes, she's particularly focused on "women's empowerment issues. It's important to give back and help the next generation come along." She's now chairman of the New College Foundation, which raises money for the school.

Can Sarasota build more homegrown wealth? Sure, if it can create more good-paying jobs and a more diverse economy, two things it's tried to do for years. While the county's jobless rate, as of November, was 6.1 percent, well below both Florida's and the nation's, a lot of the available work is in low-wage service industries. The median household income in Sarasota County in 2012 was $48,035, versus $51,017 for the entire United States. As noted, that figure doesn't say much about the true income of wealthy individuals with lots of tax-free money coming in, but it does say a lot more about the typical worker.

However, some occupations pay very well here, particularly in health care. Given the county's demographics—about a third of the population is 65 or older—Sarasota, to a physician, is pretty much what Las Vegas is to an Elvis impersonator. General internists, on average, made $246,690 last year in the North Port-Sarasota-Bradenton metropolitan statistical area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, way above the national level of $191,520; and general surgeons averaged $227,420, pretty much in line with the $230,540 national mean.

When it comes to attracting jobs, however, Sarasota has several disadvantages. For example, there's no great research university, like a Stanford or MIT, to foster high-tech businesses. There's a lovely bay, but no harbor to promote trade. And business travel can be a challenge because of the paucity of direct flights to major cities. In addition, some businesspeople outside the region view the Sarasota area unkindly because of its emphasis on "smart" or controlled growth, which they view as anti-growth.

Sarasota does have a couple of great advantages, however: the beauty of its coastline, a relatively modest cost of living, the growing dynamism of its downtown—over the past three decades, it's undergone a Joan Rivers-grade facelift, but one that actually succeeded—and its reputation as a center for the visual and performing arts. Over the years, these virtues have drawn a number of companies here, in a roundabout way. Says Mark Huey, head of the Sarasota Economic Development Corp., "Right now, I'm talking with CEOs from four foreign countries—the U.K., Italy, South Africa and China—who are considering moving parts of their operations here. The common thread is that each of them has a second home here."

The EDC has had some success stories. It takes credit for 31 projects over the past four years that it ultimately expects to add a net 2,360 jobs to the economy and already have added almost 1,700. "We don't need more tourism or service-industry jobs. What we need are more companies like Voalte, where the average salary is $75,000," says Huey. Sarasota-based Voalte, started in 2008, makes hospital communications systems based on smartphones. In 2011, it received a $250,000 grant from the EDC to add jobs. This past summer, it hired its 100th employee.

Sarasota could use more BioLucids, too.

Step into BioLucid's offices in the HuB building on Fruitville Road, and the scene is redolent of Silicon Valley. The little start-up has a light-filled workplace, a talented, youthful staff, alluring business prospects and even techdom's signature toy—a foosball table that employees can use in their free time.

Designers sit at workstations, creating digital art for the company's core products—medical-visualization programs and mobile applications with which a surgeon, say, can call up a realistic 3D image of a heart on an iPad or computer, to show a cardiac patient precisely how a stent would be inserted to help unblock an artery. Or a pharmaceutical manufacturer can illustrate a drug's effects on the liver. Or a medical-device outfit can highlight the innovations in its newest artificial hip.

Perhaps best of all, BioLucid, which has about 30 employees, has been ''profitable from day one" and is growing, says Jeff Hazelton, its president and co-founder, although he won't discuss specific numbers. The company's software is now used by clients in 20 countries, and its potential market is huge, extending beyond the medical field. Last fall, the privately held concern was expanding its operations into space adjacent to its existing offices.

All this is good news for Hazelton and his colleagues—and for Sarasota, which needs to generate good jobs to convince young people to stay here. Tech jobs, according to the TechAmerica Foundation trade group, pay 85 percent more than the average wage in the state (which, surprisingly, is fifth in the nation in tech employment). In 2012, Hazelton—a graduate of the Ringling College of Art and Design—hired nine of that school's 350 graduates, more than any other employer. Quite an achievement, because artists with computer-animation skills are much in demand by entertainment, software and digital-imaging companies around the globe.

The bad news is that it would take thousands of BioLucids to generate economic value equal to what imported wealth now provides. The good news is that in the new interconnected, digitized global workplace, many companies can operate successfully from just about anywhere—giving alluring places like Sarasota a big advantage in attracting people bent on building great enterprises and great wealth. And there's unlikely to ever be a shortage of them. No private individual is likely to ever be as rich as John D. Rockefeller, whose fortune, at its peak, might have exceeded $650 billion in current dollars. But someone will always be trying to catch up with him.

Business journalist Rich Rescigno, who first visited Sarasota 35 years ago and now lives here, is a former managing editor of Barron's.