Parting Shots

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2005

The First Friday Walks in downtown Sarasota have always drawn good crowds. To stroll Palm Avenue on a comfortable autumn evening, browsing through galleries and boutiques while sipping a glass of wine-it's just one of those pleasures unique to our town. The walks benefit local businesses, appeal to residents who prize the Sarasota lifestyle and attract tourists.

The Downtown Merchants' Association thought it would be nifty if those walks were accompanied by pleasant live music. So several blocks of merchants ponied up to pay for light, easy music during the walks. But last November Sarasota police made a group of performers pack up and go home. The officers were responding to calls by downtown residents in the adjacent high-rise condos who had complained about the noise.

It was 7:30 on a Friday night.and it was a local high school choir.

This is a classic example of why people such as John Tylee, who resigned from his job as executive director of the Downtown Association in December, say they give up on Sarasota, move away, drop off community boards, and lose interest in action groups and activities. "You can get involved, and get all enthusiastic and excited, but then you find there's just so much inertia to it," says Alison Bishop, owner of Living Walls, a longtime downtown store.

Tylee is certainly not the first Sarasotan to become frustrated by Sarasota. In 1967, Philip Hiss, the Sarasota public schools superintendent who famously championed the young architects who comprised the Sarasota of Architecture, published an article in Architecture Forum entitled, "Whatever happened to Sarasota?" It was a stinging criticism of our city. From Hiss to Tylee, many have come and gone who say it's problematic, if not impossible, to try to push Sarasota forward when so many long-standing constraints are working equally hard to hold it back.

"It's too difficult to bring people together in this community, to develop a common vision for the community," says Tylee. "There's no social cohesion, no shared principles."

This lack of unity and action convinced Tylee it was time to move on. Tylee moved to Sarasota about three years ago, initially hired by an enthusiastic Paul Thorpe and the Downtown Partnership (then named the Downtown Association) to serve as executive director of the Transportation Management Organization, a multigovernment entity proposed by the Downtown Association. Tylee had most recently been the deputy director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, a not-for-profit downtown redevelopment organization in Wilmington, Del., that had succeeded in forging public-private sector relationships to revitalize and invigorate downtown Wilmington. When Tylee first saw Sarasota, a city roughly the same size as Wilmington, he was excited about the possibilities for our downtown.

But Wilmington is home to numerous wealthy corporations and banks,companies like DuPont that willingly poured resources into efforts to revitalize the downtown. Sarasota just doesn't have that base of big corporate support and, as Tylee discovered, as a result, it doesn't have that same community culture.

Tylee has now moved to Vancouver, where he will join the distinguished team of consultants who are planning the World Urban Forum to be held there in 2006. This event brings together developed and developing countries to discuss strategies for maximizing the economic potential of urban areas around the world. Tylee will also continue his consulting practice; it was through this consulting practice that Tylee was selected as part of the team that developed the economic development clusters for Sarasota County last year.

Perhaps it would be easy for Tylee to blame certain people or personalities for holding Sarasota back. But Tylee sees a deeper, far more significant problem-what he refers to as "structural elements." He-and every person interviewed for this story-believe that that Sarasota's economic and demographic structure contribute to the social divisiveness that can lead to stagnation.

The "culture becomes owned by people who are older and by people with alternative, high sources of income," says Tylee. "They effectively drive out the others, which means mostly the younger people and the creatives." For better or worse, here is what Tylee sees as Sarasota's crippling weaknesses.

Sarasota's top two industries, by their very nature, split the community apart, says Tylee. The top income-producing industry in Sarasota is our coveted high-end tourism, which automatically separates those working in the industry from those who enjoy it.

"The service sector has notoriously low incomes compared to others," explains Tylee. "The tourists and visitors who come here are at the relatively high end of income, creating an income gap that is larger than it is in other cities. It's a scientific theory-the strong drive out the weak."

Sarasota caters to its high-end tourists-and why not? They fill our restaurants, shops and theaters. But increasing, the number of places for them to stay and things for them to do slowly pushes out similar amenities for full-time residents in lower income brackets. Ironically, those most negatively impacted are the lowest paid service personnel needed to work in all the high-end tourism venues.

The second-largest industry in Sarasota is real estate development. "Because this community doesn't export anything else, it has to sell something, so we are selling our sky," laments Tylee. "We think development is all positive, but it creates a tremendous income differential. The rich are buying our best vistas."

Certainly, real estate development sustains many Sarasotans, a lot from construction workers to bankers. But Tylee says the cost is the creation of a town where only the wealthiest can afford to live, and therefore where the wealthiest control the city's progress. or not. It's really a cliché in Sarasota: Once some people relocate here, they will stop at nothing to prevent others from doing the same.

"There will be no social cohesion until we bridge this gap and develop a third industry," says Tylee. "That's what Kathy Baylis and the Economic Development people are trying to do. Until we find that alternative, there will continue to be a gap between rich and poor, between those who want to keep Sarasota the same and the people who have to earn a living."

A significant portion of Sarasota's population is the semi-retired-those individuals who have essentially retired from their previous lives and are drawing monthly retirement, pension, dividend, interest, or other checks.

Increasingly, especially as America's older population becomes more active and youthful, those retired people are not content to play cards all day. They want to work for one reason or another. Perhaps it's been their dream to have a little shop or booth at a street market, and this is their chance.

But these semi-retired people with supplemental incomes often have a different financial agenda than their counterparts who rely on retail income for their livelihood. "Semi-retired retailers have no interest in improving their margins because they are making enough money," opines Tylee. "Many Farmer's Market vendors don't really come to sell. They come to hang out. They should forego the space, come down, buy a cup of coffee and hang out, but leave the booth space for those who want to get ahead."

Plenty of downtown retailers disagree with Tylee. "I don't think anyone with a store would not want it to do as well as possible," says Bishop. The issue, Bishop thinks, is a feeling among independent downtown retailers that they are fighting against a city that cares less about them than the big developers who are bringing big construction crews and tax dollars downtown. With large sections of downtown closed due to that construction, independent retailers have lost business, some even closing down, and they feel helpless to do anything about it.

"The city thinks they did a great job with those street closures," adds Bishop. "But it did affect customers, and it did affect our businesses. There was no good signage around the closures and detours. I got more than one phone call from a customer saying they tried to get around the construction and ended up confused and just went home."

But the semi-retired population brings another, more serious problem: They keep wages in Sarasota low. In the larger Tampa Bay area, Sarasota has the highest housing costs, but some of the lowest wages.

Tylee, City Commissioner Fredd Atkins, and many others, have attributed Sarasota's low wages, at least in part, to our semi-retired population. That population, because of supplemental income sources, can afford to accept lower wages. Their willingness to make lower-than-market wages, to make less than professional-level wages, depresses the wages offered for everyone else.

"We have a sunshine tax of about 50 percent," says Tylee. "Young professionals come here, and they try and hack it, but with our higher living expenses and depressed wages, it's hard. In a couple of years, they either become real estate agents or they go home. As a result, no one in this town will trust you for the first two years you're here because so many people leave after two years. No one wants to invest in people because they leave."

According to Tylee, in order to build a city where rich and poor, young and old, thrive together, you have to deliberately plan for that kind of diversity. That kind of planning is not solely the burden of government, but it comes from community-wide collaboration, the kind of collaboration that has proven elusive to Tylee and others in status quo Sarasota.

"This is how a good city works," says Tylee. "It has a well-managed public sector, a well-organized private sector, and a sense of trust and collaboration between the two."

Many Sarasota businesspeople sound like a broken record: "There's just no leadership in City Hall."

Translated, for most of them, that means, "There's no elected mayor."

"We pay the city manager more money than all the city commissioners combined," says Tylee. "That tells you who is running the city. It's a Kafkaesque situation that can only play out like a Monty Python skit. It's a good thing [city manager] Mike McNees has amateur acting training because at city commission meetings, he has to act like he's not the one in control. City commissioners get paid $22,000 per year; you get what you pay for."

Tylee repeats the widely held theory in the Sarasota business community that McNees and his staff are puppet-masters, running the city and the commissioners without having been elected, and therefore without any sense of accountability.

"That allegation is inaccurate to the point of bizarre," replies McNees. "Nothing could be further from the truth. I do not push outcomes. I don't say, 'This is where we need to go or what we need to do.' My focus is solely on the process-have we done things properly, do the commissioners have the information they need? I wish at times the commissioners would listen to me more than they do."

"There is a leadership vacuum in the city into which an unelected city administrator has stepped," says Ken Shelin, a city planning board member, president of the Bayfront Condominium Association, and candidate for the at-large city commission seat currently held by Mayor Richard Martin. Shelin was one of many who successfully opposed the "strong mayor" referendum in March 2002 because it failed to provide adequate checks and balances on the strong mayor, or "boss mayor's" power. But Shelin is also one of the leaders of the most recent "elected mayor" effort, which would focus city leadership in one single elected mayor, but provide limits to keep that mayor's power from running amok.

Tylee, Shelin, and much of the Sarasota business community claim that City Hall's complex bureaucracy slows everything down. "We have to get rid of the pedantry that exists in the city departments where they've laid such convoluted processes that no one can get anything done," says Shelin.

In some ways, McNees agrees: "Are we a bureaucracy? Are there hurdles and regulations? Absolutely. But we have been tackling the processes and have been making real strides there. Maybe the issue at the city is that we try to tackle too much; we try to solve too many things and are overreaching at times. But three years ago, downtown was completely stagnant and there had been no significant construction project in downtown in 10 years. Now take a look outside. The renaissance of downtown is not just beginning; it's well under way."

McNees has no particular opposition to an elected (though not "strong") mayor system, which he saw work well in Naples, where he was assistant Collier County administrator and chief operating officer before moving to Sarasota in 2001. "If you take a little of my work away, I'm not going to complain. I've got plenty to do. I think the real issues for us are that we struggle with accommodating the very noisy input from a few and have trouble consistently moving forward. The dynamic in Sarasota is that everyone who doesn't get their way screams that the system isn't working."

Perhaps a relevant side note-the City of Sarasota has never joined the Downtown Partnership as member; ironically, Sarasota County is a member.

Again, everyone interviewed agrees: The biggest hurdle in the private sector is simply ego. The pervasive rivalries endemic to small towns certainly exist in the city of Sarasota, and such rivalries usually lead to stagnation, because neither side wants to give in to or collaborate with the other. "No one wants to give up turf, and they can't find a way to put aside their egos and work together," laments Tylee. Still, he notes, "We've had some great successes in the last year; we were able to bring people around a table who had never been around a table together before. The relationships are beginning to be there and we can start to build around common themes."

The private sector and its ego-based issues extend into the city's neighborhoods as well, with battles raging as neighbors scramble to achieve the pole position. "This kind of stuff goes on in every community," says Tylee. "But it's more intense here because the escalation of land values creates more tension. There is a strong divide between the people who want to maximize our opportunities and the people who like it the way it is."

The solution to private sector problems may be the most difficult of all, because it requires people to check their egos at the door and find a way to work together towards common goals, with a sense of consensus and compromise.

Once the city government is restructured and the private sector is more organized and unified, there needs to be collaboration between the two under a common vision, says Tylee. In order to hold downtown events right now, for example, the organizer has to walk around to all the different city departments to get approval.

"Actually, in most highly successful cities, there are collaborative efforts between the public and private sectors," says Tylee. "Wilmington, Del., Charlotte, N.C., and Chattanooga, Tenn. are just a few examples where the collaborations have worked to revitalize downtown areas."

As an example, Tylee points to the transformation of the mass transit system in Charlotte: "The private and public sectors there understood the need for big investment in mass transit. The private sector invested heavily into downtown, including putting up the money to build a downtown bus station where there previously had been very little activity. The private sector also contributed the resources to revive an antiquated trolley system, which became the jumping-off point for planning a countywide light rail system."

And about those local school groups that are told they're too noisy to perform at a downtown open house? Tylee says if there were a clear directive from the elected officials that established a policy on events-the kinds of events that are good for Sarasota-then a single city office could be established where someone could obtain a single approval from a single administrator. Creating that policy would require collaboration of both the public and private sectors.

And that's just one small, easy example. But this kind of coming together rarely happens in Sarasota, at least not at the pace and in the manner people like Tylee would prefer. The lack of collaboration often leads Sarasota to send mixed messages. It wants vibrant after-hours life downtown, but it doesn't want any noise. It wants to hold events downtown, but it doesn't want to close down the streets for too long. It wants affordable housing but it doesn't want to lay the necessary regulatory groundwork.

"We have a culture owned by the old, but with street banners that say, 'Yes, we are a university town!'" laughs Tylee. "There is a disturbance in the force, a cognitive dissonance. What are we trying to be? In order to determine that, and make it happen, leadership is required in all sectors."

Perhaps McNees puts it best: "It's time, from a public policy standpoint, for Sarasota to grow up."

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