Street Talk - October 2003

By staff October 1, 2003


Sarasota's newest real estate icon is a Catholic saint.

St. Joseph is the Catholic patron saint of the home, family, and construction workers-and lately, of Sarasota real estate. Karen Cullen of St. Matthews Catholic Books and Gifts is doing a brisk business in four-inch-tall plastic statues of the saint, who raised Jesus and taught him his trade. Cullen sells from 10 to 20 statues a day; they cost$2.50, and for 50 cents more you get a holy card with a prayer. The idea is to bury the statue in the front yard-facing the front door, so he can bring prospects-recite the prayer and wait confidently for buyers.

At first, McCullen worried that it "might be sacrilegious" to sell the saint to push property. "But it's not," she decided. "It's putting your faith in the power of prayer. It's prayer, not the statue, that does the trick. One Southern Baptist woman who bought a statue from me said she recited the prayer sitting on the front porch of her deceased mother's home. When she came to the end of the prayer, a car pulled up and a man got out and asked if this pretty house was for sale. There was no sign in the yard. Just the buried statue and the holy card in her hand." -Bob Ardren


Out at Saks, Iris Starr moves on.

Q: You were general manager of Saks here since it opened, and suddenly this summer, you were gone. What happened?

A: Saks was very good to me, and I gave them great results, but our priorities were different.

Q: So what are you going to do now?

A: I don't know yet. Michael Saunders was one of the first to call. "What's your dream?" she asked. I told her I have a fantasy of consulting to all the developers coming downtown. Some of them are building mixed-use space with retail. Do they know what their customers want? I do. I have taken the real estate course and passed the test; now I have to pass the state exam. It's scary. I can tell you every little piece of merchandise that was in the store, but when I open that little test book I freeze.

I'm also trying out selling some clothing collections that are shown in private homes, and I'm going to California to take a look at French Rags, a line of knits we used to carry when I was at Bonwits. There's a possibility I could represent that collection in Sarasota, Tampa and Naples.

Q: What about taking a retail job in another market?

A: I could have had four jobs out of state already, but I love the people here, and they have been great to me. I'm staying.

Q: What's this whole experience been like?

A: I never took for granted that people liked Iris Starr; I would always say that it was because I was Iris Starr of Saks. But now I've realized they really like me. Some have even called offering to back me if I go into business. This all could have been very depressing. I could have had to go into analysis! Instead, it's been very rewarding, and it's opened up a whole new life to me.

Q: So what have you been doing?

A: In the first two months after I left, I took the real estate course and some computer courses; I joined the library; I had foot surgery I'd been putting off. I do not want to be totally absorbed by one job for 70 hours a week ever again. I've learned I like me; I like my warmth, which people don't always know I have, and I like multi-tasking. I'd like to be able to do three or four different projects.

Q: Is Sarasota's fashion sense different than those outside the market might think?

A: Oh, my God, 100 percent. When we opened, we were called a "resort store," but we are an established community with people who live here year-round. In New York, they often think of us as the place their grandparents live, but we're more like Palm Beach, with black-tie events, and we're younger than outsiders realize.

Q: Maybe you should start a fashion TV show, with tips and advice.

A: Thank you! Now please help me make that happen. We could show them, here's a $5,000 outfit from Saks-now here's how we can reproduce that look for $350.

Q: Do you still shop at Saks?

A: I would not want to make the staff uncomfortable. With time, I'm sure I'll go back-maybe after they name a new general manager. But I bought something sensational in T.J. Maxx the other day-it's amazing what you can find when you have to.

-Interview by Pam Daniel

Hot Seat

Executive Director of the Sarasota County Convention & Visitors' Bureau since 1999 ("Well, at least I've had one boom year"), Virginia Haley exudes honesty and enthusiasm welcoming visitors. After several tough seasons, what does she expect this year?

Q: Quite a few hotels and motels are being replaced by condos lately. How many rooms have we lost?

A: We lost 295 rooms this year and next year we're scheduled to lose at least five more properties, totaling another 274 rooms. To put that in some perspective, however, Panama City Beach lost 1,800 rooms this year.

Q: What's behind this trend?

A: It's a heck of a lot easier to finance condominiums rather than hotels, especially after 9/11. Sure, there's the new Ritz on South Beach [in Miami Beach] opening, but that was already in the pipeline. Don't forget, our new Ritz Beach resort is really a condominium project, not a hotel.

Q: Sarasota had two founding industries, commercial fishing and tourism. The first appears gone forever; what does this loss of rooms bode for the second?

A: What you're seeing is the undermining of tourism, because those hotel and motel rooms appeal to the first-time visitor. I'm concerned, long-term, about our ability to draw new and varied kinds of visitors to Sarasota.

Q: So are we destined to become just an upscale retirement center?

A: We're walling ourselves in and that poses a big risk long-term. We've been pretty well insulated from the major national downturns, but it's going to take some serious care and feeding if you want that economic engine [tourism] to continue to make our area attractive for investment in new hotels. The political first step is a conference center. We'd still have our leisure vacationers but also more medical conferences and the like.

Q: What keeps you awake at night?

A: Thinking about the value of tourism to Sarasota-really. We've done such a bad job of showing people that over the years, especially in Sarasota. We wouldn't have so many of the fine restaurants and shops if it weren't for tourism. And though other areas are flat jealous of our repeat business, those people are aging-including the Baby Boomers. They won't be with us forever and it's smart to start thinking about that now.

-Bob Ardren

Best Bite

It seems like every other Sarasotan has been on the Atkins diet, which may explain the mania in local restaurants of that most perfect of Atkins meals-the Cobb salad. Even those of us who shun Atkins (can you imagine life without bread?) are enjoying the bounty of flavors coming from bleu cheese, bacon, avocado (most of the time), egg (some of the time) and great chopped greens.

Our current favorite: The Downtown Bistro's version lacks avocado but the romaine, watercress and chicory are chopped nicely, as is proper for a Cobb. And the Maytag bleu cheese is wonderful and even the dressing has its roots in the original recipe, although it's a bit sweet.


It was his dream home. The 50-ish local businessman with thinning gray hair and the stiff-looking black suit repeated it maybe two dozen times during the planning board meeting. "All of my professional life," he'd worked to build such a waterfront home-and worked hard in the community-and now he had the opportunity if only the board members would grant the variance to go ahead with the project.

He'd planned it so long, worked so hard, tried so very much to skimp here and there to make it reality finally. If only the planning board would allow him to build a bit bigger-just a bit-than the rules allowed.

And the board (appointed citizens who are just trying to do a good job, and, God knows, have a soft spot in their hearts for what, apparently, is the very kind of person standing before them) listened patiently. He'd told them what he was going to tell them, told them, and then told them what he'd told them.

And then he unveiled his dream home.

With a flourish, he took two steps back, reached over, and swept the paper cover from the drawing sitting on an was a four-plex.

-Bob Ardren


Design pros reveal what's on their nightstand.

John Potvin (architect specializing in waterfront properties): American Shelter: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the American Home, by Lester Walker. I actually carry it around with me. It's got beautifully drawn illustrations that trace the history of architecture from the earliest settlements to today. It also answers the burning question of exactly when does a home go from being Mediterranean to Spanish.

Judy Graham (interior designer for Marina Jack): I dearly love For the Love of Roses in Florida and Elsewhere by Barbara Oehlbeck. If you really want a bible on roses, this is it. It tells you everything you need to grow them here. It's a beautiful book, but mine's all beat up because I've taken an orange marker to so much of it.

Shirley Hiss (widow of the late photographer, writer, developer and designer Philip Hiss): The Sarasota School of Architecture by John Howey gives a very good picture of what architecture was like in the '50s and '60s. It has really helped revive this type of architecture with young students.

Toshiko Mori (New York-based architect who has designed several Casey Key homes, author and Harvard professor): Farewell My Queen, by Chantal Thomas, is the story of three days during the fall of Versailles and Marie Antoinette. Its exquisite details of place, architecture and gardens give a comprehensive picture of this catastrophic event.

Carl Abbott (much-awarded modern architect): Most books have limitations in terms of architecture, since space cannot be photographed. Architecture must also express an awareness of the time in which it was constructed. Two books that succeed are Experiencing Architecture, by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, and Architecture: A Modern View, by Richard Rogers.


During the land boom of the 1920s, many residents built their little houses and planted fruit trees in the yard, including mangoes, which would grow to offer lots of shade as well as sweet, tropical fruit. Over the decades some of these mango trees became giants, like the one on the west side of the Suncoast Blood Bank parking lot. But redevelopment is taking its toll on the old mango trees downtown--witness the pair destroyed at Cocoanut and Fruitville to make way for the Encore townhouses, even though then-Mayor Carolyn Mason did her best to save them.

Charles Crowley, whose family has operated Crowley Nursery & Garden since the 19th century in Sarasota County, says he sells "hundreds" of new and improved species of mangoes each year, but few are planted anywhere near the inner city.

Called "The Queen of Fruit," mangoes are adored from Sarasota south through the Caribbean and tropics. But the giant old mango trees of Sarasota, where youngsters gathered each summer to fill their pockets, are fast disappearing in the city where they've long symbolized "the tropics," or at least our attempt to mimic (and, oh, my, yes, to taste) them. -Bob Ardren



Big-voiced Jennifer Sweat burns up the Sarasota music scene.

Thirty-year-old Jennifer Sweat studied interior design, but it's as the charismatic, compelling lead singer of Sarasota's Jennifer and the Venturas that she's found her true voice. Since forming in 2001, the band has rocketed to the forefront of the local music scene. Now, she's joining the crusade to make local laws friendlier to live music.

What's turned you into a political activist? The need for a compromise. Our older population puts money into the economy, but we need to co-exist with responsible club ownership and band participation.

What do you listen to for fun? Indigo Girls, acoustic folk or country-music that's good for the soul.

Worst-ever gig? A bar in a bowling alley. We hadn't developed a fan base yet, and the place was empty except for a bad acoustic tile ceiling and a karaoke machine on stage.

What surprises people about you? I'm just a Florida cracker. I like to hang out barefoot with the dawgs and play pinball.

What's good about Sarasota's music scene? Sarasota has such a great crowd, especially the younger audience. They get the kind of music we play. It's not the same in Naples or Tampa.

What's ahead? I hope my hard work and perseverance will land me in a place where I can tour around the country or the world. I don't necessarily want to be at the top of the charts; I just want to be sure of myself and good at my craft.

-Pat Haire

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