Watching the Watch Dogs
Depending on your point of view, the Argus Foundation is either a group of business leaders trying to build bridges between business and government, or a group of power brokers that keeps trying to have its way (mostly unsuccessfully) with Sarasota.
A year ago Argus was the leading proponent of a plan to convert the city to an ultra-strong (some said "dictatorial") style of government. That was defeated by well over two-to-one, even though its supporters outspent the opposition three-to-one.
Within a month or so, late last spring, Argus was back, this time throwing up a legal challenge to the popular Duany Downtown Plan. That resulted in six months of expensive negotiations, ending in impasse and the city commission saying in effect, "See you in court." The case is scheduled to be heard next month.
The members of Argus are (mostly) smart, successful (it costs $5,000 to join) people; its executive director, Kerry Kirschner, is a well-regarded, articulate spokesman for the group's positions. A former city commissioner and mayor, Kirschner certainly knows how to build bridges between his group and city government.
Yet it seems far more bridges are being burned than built.
An increasing common topic of conversation among (non-Argus) community leaders is what happened to the positive vision Argus professes;, and to answer that, you have to look to the group's board. Carl Weinrich, CEO of the Sarasota YMCA and a leader in the successful campaign to pass the school tax last year, is a new board member. He says the bridge-burning is "just a matter of perception" and "I'm into changing that perception." Whether he's talking about refocusing the group's actions or its p.r., we'll have to see.
Servian and the City
Many say bright, quick, and redheaded City Commissioner Mary Ann Servian is the best-qualified newcomer to the commission table in years. Described as a "sparkler" by her supporters, Servian has a background in finance and a knack for getting involved and getting things done.
For example, prior to winning a special election to replace Al Hogle on the commission 18 months ago, she pulled together a group of vehement opponents on the mega-house issue and brokered a settlement that was quickly adopted by the city-after years of bickering over the issue.
On the commission, Servian steadfastly pushes her own agenda, which plays well in and takes good care of her district, while remarkably coming off as being in the best interests of the entire community.
Scheduled to run for re-election to her own four-year term this month, Servian doesn't even have a viable opponent-despite efforts by some business people to promote one more attuned their interests-and so looks like a shoo-in for another four years.
There's been some whining among local architects that the design for the new (and a little startling) $12-million Sarasota Herald-Tribune headquarters scheduled to be built on Main Street is coming from the firm of Arquitectonica in Miami...but surprisingly little.
Arquitectonica, in case the name doesn't ring a bell, is the firm that designed the "building with the hole in the middle" you used to see during the opening of Miami Vice-the hole with the single beautiful palm tree in it.
Far more common than complaint is the kind of praise I heard from design architect Dale Parks at Seibert Architects, himself busy with the Sarasota School of Architecture-style bus transfer station scheduled for Lemon Avenue. "Any firm that raises the bar for architecture in this community is fine as far as I'm concerned. I'm certainly not opposed to somebody the caliber of Arquitectonica," he says.
The dean of working architects in Sarasota concurred. Carl Abbott says simply, "I want good architecture, no matter where it comes from. It's a creative building that will add to the community character of Sarasota-and we want more creative buildings."
Cafes and coffee shops are big in Sarasota again-as though they've ever really been gone. But most of the chat is about downtown and the South Trail, even though the North Trail is where you'll find some of the most charming spots-a great number of which have stood the test of time.
Relatively new on the north side-about a year old and clearly prospering-is Carr's Corner Cafe at 3025 N. Tamiami Trail. It's become a favorite breakfast and luncheon spot both with the surrounding Bay Haven School neighborhood and visitors to the Ringling School of Art and the Ringling Museum.
Think excellent fresh fruit dishes and classy omelets at breakfast, and carefully prepared sandwiches and salads at lunch.
Proprietor Sharon Carr is a member of Sarasota's near-pioneer Carr family, which managed the John Ringling Hotel in its prime a half-century ago. She's proud of that tradition, and it shows in both the food and service.
A sparkling little spot with great food, the family-owned and operated Carr's is a find.
Paul Mattison is one of Sarasota's best-known and most warmly regarded chef/restaurateurs. With 10 years' experience at the Summerhouse, Mattison opened the Sarasota Bread Company in 1998 and The Plaza Tower in St. Petersburg a year ago January. Now he's added Mattison's City Grill at 1 N. Lemon Ave., the very center of downtown, where city leaders have long dreamed of a romantic, outdoor cafe. Mattison, who has built a new bar and surroundings there and booked live music, may finally fulfill that dream.
Q: What makes you believe this will succeed where others have failed?
A: Ernie [Ritz] kept his overhead to nothing and brought people here, but that's not what the city wanted. I'm doing the opposite with my investment, and betting I can create a quality, cordial atmosphere and a neighborhood, everyday kind of place.
I've been leading tours to Europe for five or six years, and everybody loves to eat outdoors there-it's kind of like camping. This corner is so visible and is such a great spot-and Sarasota has so few outdoor eating spots-and we're determined to make this one comfortable.
Q: How does Sarasota rank as a restaurant town-specifically, how sophisticated is its palate?
A: My first impression here was that we're a Midwestern, meat-and-potatoes place. But while lots of Midwest transplants are here, the palate has become more sophisticated as we become more of a global melting pot.
Q: How do Sarasota and St. Petersburg differ as restaurant towns?
A: St. Pete doesn't have the same character as Sarasota, which really indulges independent restaurateurs. As a result, we have lots more fine restaurants here. Sure, St. Pete and the surrounding area have a lot more people, but that just makes it a much wider market-not necessarily a better one for restaurants.
Q: What kind of ethnic foods do you enjoy eating in Sarasota, and what do you miss?
A: In Sarasota you'll find me patronizing Chutney's, Selva Grill, Siam Orchid and Mediterraneo-the last one because I grew up in an Italian family and love the food. What I really miss from my days in Colorado-where the palate is a bit more sophisticated-is the wild game served there.
Q: Say a miracle happens and you get a day off. Do you cook at home, and what would you cook?
A: Sure, I cook at home, and often it's as simple as a steak on the grill. But risotto is a real favorite because you can do so many flavors with it-I'll just check my refrigerator and find plenty of tasty risotto ingredients for my once-a-year meal at home.