Street Talk - July 2003

By staff July 1, 2003

Partisanship gets out the vote

Long-established Sarasota politicians like Mollie Cardamone and Lou Ann Palmer are upset at the recent rash of Democrat/Republican partisanship that sprang up in last spring's city commission elections. Cardamone says the elections are legally non-partisan and city commissioners don't have Democrat and Republican issues-or at least aren't supposed to.

But the county's Democratic and Republican parties jumped into last spring's election with both feet, the Democrats funding some brutal mailings attacking then-Mayor Carolyn Mason for switching to the Republicans, and the Republicans funding mailings and phone banks to promote the election of Danny Bilyeu-"The only Republican on the ballot," their mailings claimed.

The bright side of the whole matter is that voter participation jumped and jumped big.

City Clerk Billy Robinson predicted about a 10 percent turnout for the primary-but 14.4 percent of the voters turned out. And then, in the runoff elections, when even lower turnouts are the general rule, the turnout was 17.84 percent.

Partisanship may not be pretty sometimes, but all those mailings and phone calls certainly helped turn out the voters.

Dueling Downtowns

Well, at least dueling downtown organizations.

Only a community that's growing faster than it's able to cope or falling in a death spiral would have two sort of competing business groups trying to represent its downtown. Nobody else needs that kind of help.

And two such groups are exactly what Sarasota has acquired-the long-established Downtown Association and now a competing Main Street Merchants' Association that's grown fast mainly because its dues are cheap at $50 a year and it's offering co-op advertising programs.

The rivalry was almost bound to happen after the Downtown Association rudely retired its executive director Paul Thorpe, who'd founded the group and over more than 20 years almost singlehandedly built it into one of the outstanding downtown groups in the state. That fact was acknowledged by Thorpe's election three years ago as president of the statewide Florida Redevelopment Association.

But like any real activist, Thorpe made some enemies along the way, and the street talk is, that's why he was suddenly retired. That made Ernie Ritz mad.

So Ritz, owner of the Gator Club, a founding director of the Downtown Association and a long-time pal of Thorpe, started a new group with the help of Cathryn Girard, owner of the Cobblestone Gallery. At last count they had 75 or so members and were shooting for 101.

The Downtown Association, meanwhile, employed John Tylee as its new executive director and gave him the unenviable job of trying to pick up the pieces.

It will all work out.

The Downtown Association is focusing on the big picture such as traffic studies, zoning and planning, while the Main Street Merchants Association scrambles to deliver tangible benefits to its mostly retailer members.

The two leaders couldn't have more different backgrounds. Ritz is a former developer and builder with a genuine talent for the club business--as anyone who's been in his Gator Club on Main will agree.

Tylee is a native Rhodesian with redevelopment experience in Toronto among other places. He and Ritz are both savvy pros at what they do, but they do different things. On top of that, both are genuinely nice guys.

As long as the rivalry can be kept under control, downtown Sarasota as a whole is going to benefit. But it sure keeps things interesting for a reporter on Main Street.

The last beach bar

It's summer, when Sarasotans actually go to the beach and sometimes for more than just a tan or some exercise. Sometimes they're looking for clinking ice cubes floating in say, rum.

Sarasota once had a handful of flourishing beach bars. You don't have to be a native to remember the Lime Tree, Lido Beach Inn or the Azure Tides on Lido or the Gulf & Bay Club on Siesta. But they're all gone now, mostly due to the "condominiumizing" of the beaches.

So now we're down to one genuine beach bar in the entire county-the Radisson on Lido, although you can still buy a cold draft beer or wine cooler at the Lido Beach Pavilion (along with a really good cheeseburger).

Chris Brown, manager of the Radisson's beach bar, says since their remodeling and expansion last spring, business has flourished-and being a monopoly hasn't hurt it one bit, either.

So we're lucky to still have at least one spot on the beach where you can sip a mixed drink like a mai tai or even a mud slide and watch the sun go down.

And Manatee is different

Up in Manatee County they don't permit such goings on as real beach bars. All alcohol is strictly forbidden on Manatee beaches, even a simple cold beer.

But they make up for that in other ways.

In Sarasota County no alcohol can be sold before 1 p.m. on Sunday, so you'll go to church, I suppose. But in Manatee County the bars can (and several do) open for business promptly at 7 a.m. every Sunday morning.

Hot Seat

Fredd Atkins was the first black Sarasotan ever elected to the Sarasota City Commission, back in 1985. He served 10 years, was elected mayor (also a first) twice, and this spring was again re-elected as the commissioner from the city's District One, easily the economically poorest in the city. An imposing figure physically, Atkins is often quiet at the commission table-for a commissioner-but his soft-spoken and often clarifying remarks ring with a remarkably city-wide perspective, and with genuine concern for both the working class and the people who employ them.

Having grown up on the streets of Sarasota, Atkins knows the city and its history well, so we asked for that perspective he's bringing back to the commission table after an eight-year absence.

Q: How has Sarasota changed in the last eight years?

A: The big thing is the vitality of downtown, and also the neighborhoods. Now we have a planning process for invigorating the citizens' interests throughout the city. Now we also have master plans not only for downtown, but also for the neighborhoods and both the U.S. 41 and 301 corridors.

Q: How has District One changed?

A: There's no real change economically, but several planning processes finally involving the citizens and neighborhoods and promising to make things better. There's a sense of expectation of what these master plans will do, and it's time a lot of them were completed. Let's face it, some of them are old plans, and we need to find out what's taking so long.

Q: Do you have any real hope for change in District One?

A: Yes, I do, and I see the hope. If we can generate real targets and people can agree on their value, we'll eventually bring in light industry and housing, and people in District One will finally have real paychecks. That will bring stores catering to their needs, and that's the hope of District One.

Q: What led you to run again for the city commission?

A: Simply the call of my community. It was a human call and a major struggle for me concerning running again. But the people didn't believe they were being represented. Honestly, I thought I was going to the county commission by this time, but after a couple of defeats my friends all said, "Do it now-come back to the city." It was a real community thing.

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

A: Absolutely nothing. I go to sleep like a bear-which is to say, easily.

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