Street Talk - January 2003

By staff January 1, 2003

You're so lucky I'm here

"You're so lucky I'm here," Sarasota City Manager Mike McNees told a Downtown Association audience recently as he marked his first year in the city.

"When I got here, this town was a real mess."

The usually far more restrained McNees warmed to his subject as the audience started to chuckle.

"Yes, sir, Pete Schneider [the deputy city manager] bought me a glass of wine a little while ago, and I'm ready to tell it like it is," McNees quipped as laughter began rolling across the house during what was probably the lightest moment to date of McNees' tenure as city manager.

"Areas of this city hadn't had electricity for as many as four days before I arrived," McNees reported, starting to chuckle himself. "And there was some serious flooding," he added. "We haven't had a single flood in Sarasota since I've arrived. Not a single serious flood."

What the city manager was kidding about was the fact that when he arrived to take over the reins of city government, Sarasota was digging out from Tropical Storm Gabrielle a year ago September. That storm did leave some homes, mine included, without power for five long and eventually odorous days.

And that short performance before the downtown merchants probably won McNees more new friends in the business community than weeks of door knocking would have accomplished.

Best Bite

Jerk chicken is the Caribbean's style of barbecued bird, with a big enough taste difference to make chicken interesting again. To try some, stop by what's probably the best-looking barbecue shop in Sarasota-Bahama John's Rib Shack at 4256 S. Tamiami Trail.

The Rib Shack is an ultra-smart-looking building with a cafeteria-style line, so you can get a good look at the food you're picking out. And the variety is great. In addition to the usual pork and baby back ribs, there are chopped pork and chicken along with sliced beef and, of course, jerk chicken with its slightly fiery sauce of peppers and lime juice.

Oh, my.

Sides include Bahama peas and rice, mac-n-cheese, fried bananas, the usual baked beans, cole slaw and my favorite, cucumber and tomato salad.

And one last thing. Be sure not to miss the beautiful new pedestal sink right near the end of the food line where you can do what you always need to do after "q"-wash down your hands and face.

The party you are calling

Sarasota County government has a new 4,000-instrument digital phone system, and even some of the county's approximately 3,650 employees are dismayed over how sadistically it treats callers. Frustration levels are reaching levels that would make Catbert snicker.

For example, dial the listed number for the county commission and you'll get seven choices ("Listen carefully because our options have changed") including solid waste and even mosquito control-but not one of them is for the county commission.

Fact is, you can get caught in an answering machine purgatory where it becomes impossible to find a live human voice. This takes on real irony when some of the recorded messages drone on about "serving our customers." Well, we're not customers, we're citizens; and oh, yes, taxpayers to boot. In addition to calling citizens "customers," the county now calls departments "business centers." It's all so '90s and, if you ask me, as silly as that old saw about "running government like a business," when in fact, government is not a for-profit enterprise and exists for all sorts of purposes that businesses don't.

The simple fact is, this is a phone system that seems designed to give government a bad name-or maybe to teach you to leave it alone.

"Hey you," says the bird

Jungle Gardens is one of Florida's oldest roadside attractions, first opening to the public in 1936. Its collection of birds and other critters consists mostly of abandoned pets and wounded creatures unable to return to the wild that have supported themselves-and the gardens-for decades amusing visitors to the 10-acre business.

Management of the gardens invited the media and friends to a special reception there recently to announce the formation of the Allyn Educational Museum, named after the late Arthur C. Allyn, one-time owner of the Chicago White Sox and Jungle Gardens, whose descendants still own the business. The new museum will offer special courses in nature appreciation for groups ranging in age from elementary school through seniors.

But after the presentation, as we strolled through the garden's bird displays, one bird stopped us dead in our tracks. Not one, not twice, but three times, the bird clearly told me in no uncertain terms to "Go #[email protected]! Yourself"- In other words, perform an act that's simply physically impossible.

This is clearly a disgruntled employee, whose role may be limited when schoolchildren come by.

Hot Seat

Nearly three decades of working the sidewalks, shops and professional offices along Sarasota's Main Street earned Paul Thorpe the well-deserved title of "Mr. Downtown." For 28 years he worked long hours resurrecting a seemingly dead downtown business district to one that now ranks in the top five in the state. Thorpe, who last summer completed his second term as president of the Florida Redevelopment Association, retired recently, and we asked for some frank answers.

Q. What hasn't been achieved and badly needs to be done?

A. Things like Five Points, which is a real sore thumb right in the middle of downtown. And there's that old Southeast Bank parking lot between First and Second streets--nothing has been done there in all these years. A lot of things remain, things I worked for for years, like finishing Lemon Avenue. That's been a number-one goal for years-and still is.

Q. What do you really think of the Duany Plan?

A. I don't think it answers all the needs of downtown at all. I keep going back to the R/UDAT plan done in 1983 that I think really had more good ideas suitable for Sarasota. For example, R/UDAT called for a conference center on that empty space between First and Second streets. In total, I think we could have done better.

Q. How does Sarasota stack up against other downtowns in Florida?

A. We honestly stack up in the top five of redeveloped downtowns, and what we sometimes forget is how much people who don't live here like to come here. For example, during my two years as president of the redevelopment group, we had four conferences in Sarasota because this is where the members wanted to come. People from all around Florida are always interested in what's here. It's wonderful.

Q. What's been your most consistent obstacle?

A. Getting everybody on the same page. Oftentimes the elected officials want one thing, city staff wants another and the local activists want still another. Remember the big fight over building the Ritz? The seemingly endless struggle where the city let a group with no plan and little money but loud voices hold up and delay and delay something that now everybody recognizes is good for the entire community. I honestly don't believe we have ever done anything that's detrimental to the quality of life in Sarasota.

Q. Where do you see downtown Sarasota being in 10 years?

A. If we can keep the momentum going-and there's no real reason we can't-we'll have the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Main Street, something good at Five Points, a better road system through downtown and, of course, the new bridge out to St. Armands Circle. But we have to maintain the quality, and if we can do that, we'll remain one of the top cities in the entire country in which to live. Driving along our bayfront is such a wonderful experience many visitors actually get out of their cars and start walking it. And when they do that, well, you can be sure they'll never forget us.

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