It's possible, but you'd better act fast, says Bob Gibbs of Gibbs Planning Group, a Michigan-based urban retail consulting firm, who spoke at a somewhat panicky forum on downtown shopping recently. Sponsored by Argus, the forum had Michael Saunders warning an audience of 300 that downtown, with all its new condo projects, was turning into a "vertical suburb." (The subject obviously hit a nerve; Argus usually attracts 25 to 30 people to its forums.)

"We're not delivering what we promised," she said, alluding to the motto of "live, work and play" that has helped sell so many new luxury condos downtown. "We have to protect downtown or what we sold people was a lie." Saunders added that property values downtown will start falling and some projects may not be built if individual proprietors of downtown stores don't begin to work with commercial developers just itching to amass property at a reasonable price.

Gibbs, who is working with just such a team of developers-the Isaac Property Company-believes there is a small window of opportunity to attract major retailers to downtown Sarasota before they head out to I-75 or to some other soon-to-be-built outdoor shopping district. We're a growing community with wealth, he says, and retailers have us on their radar screens. (Brett Hutchens, president of Casto Lifestyle Properties and the developer of One Hundred Central and Whole Foods, has just signed Starbucks, Ashley Avery Collectibles, Washington Mutual and Aveda Day Spa and Salon as well as another big as yet unnamed national retailer to his mixed-use project.)

So what does downtown have to its advantage that Lakewood Ranch is lacking? "Sales are higher downtown," asserts Gibbs. "That's why retailers go there." Also, he adds, "your islands are well-positioned to make downtown successful since people from the keys [Longboat and Lido] have to drive through downtown to head north or south." We're the only downtown in Florida Gibbs knows of that has that advantage.

Bill Isaac says he and his brother Charles "Butch" Isaac have already purchased Ovo Café at Lemon Avenue and State Street, and are getting close to amassing the property they need for a substantial downtown retail project. Although he wouldn't say where (property records hadn't recorded the purchases yet) or how much square footage the brothers wanted, he said by the end of the summer, "We shouldn't be dealing with any more land issues."

Do the Isaac brothers plan to get rid of the mom-and-pop stores that line Main Street? Absolutely not, says Bill Isaac. "We want a retail project with a lot of local merchants. Fifth Avenue in Naples is a good prototype. We were just down there. There's only one national merchant."

Isaac-who isn't necessarily limiting his downtown project to one national-brand retailer and hasn't talked to any retailers at this point-says he'd love to see locally owned shops or independent restaurants like Beach Bistro and Pattigeorge's. Still, he cautions, "We've haven't made an irrevocable decision to go ahead." Much depends on those store owners. Convincing owners to sell at prices that make sense is the hardest part of the job, says Gibbs. "Sometimes it's done over a cup of coffee with a friend, sometimes a mayor would call, sometimes it's twisting somebody's arm." -Susan Burns

What Retail Experts See In Sarasota

$700 billion in retail sales

$200 million bleeds to other areas such as Tampa's International Mall and Naples

Highest restaurant sales per capita in entire U.S.

Pent-up demand for additional art galleries, and men's and women's moderate to upscale apparel stores

Huge demand for "super luxury" stores such as Prada, St. John, Gucci. ("Ten to 15 percent of your retail could be that," says Gibbs.)

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