The Pioneers

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2005

Long neglected, with dilapidated buildings and a history of crime, the streets between Fruitville Road and 10th Street were off-limits to most Sarasotans for decades.

But in the last few years, the Rosemary District has welcomed a charter middle school, two weekly newspapers, photography studios, antique shops, design companies and art galleries.

Some of the newest arrivals-people who have opened businesses within the past three years-are bringing years of experience from successful careers in other places along with the fresh enthusiasm and hope that comes from starting a new venture. Anything is possible in this funky, edgy neighborhood, they say-"It's like the Village was decades ago," enthuses newcomer Ray Schilcher.

Marcus Anast of Sarasota Collection

Marcus Anast doesn't want too many people to realize the Rosemary District is becoming a trendy business address. He likes it just the way it is-off-center, edgy, eclectic, rough.

Anast and his wife Pamela Rogers own the Sarasota Collection, an upscale home design emporium on Central Avenue filled with bolts of gorgeous fabrics and custom furniture. "We moved to Sarasota 10 years ago and I fell in love with the Rosemary District the moment I saw it," he says.

The exuberant Anast ("He's the crazy cousin everyone wants," says an acquaintance) should know about edgy neighborhoods that transform into hot spots. He and Pam are veterans of New York City's SoHo district and followed that area through its gentrification and all the changes that followed.

After more than a dozen years navigating New York's fast-paced fashion trade, they were "burned out" and ready to seek calmer pastures. Friends raved about Sarasota, and Rogers and Anast and their two youngest children came to check it out. They never left.

After enjoying a few years of retirement they decided to jump back into the design business. Rogers, a designer whose specialty is luxury bedding and window treatments, needed a large space for her new collections. They knew exactly where they wanted to be.

"The Rosemary District reminded us of that raw edge Soho once had," says Anast, who has a tendency to show customers around the neighborhood like a goodwill ambassador.

"We don't need stores like Gap here," he says. "I love it just the way it is."

Jeff Rubin of Vin Cella

When Jeff Rubin retired as the drummer for Yanni and a host of other bands two years ago, his wife Mary Beth, a registered nurse, asked him what he wanted to do next. Rubin, 51, knew he wanted to leave Fort Lauderdale and head to Southwest Florida to be near their daughter and her family. Other than that, he wasn't sure. "I don't know," he remembers telling her. "All I really want to do is drink good wine with my friends."

Rubin is passionate about wine-a passion that began when he was 12 years old and he noticed the descriptive labels on the wine bottles in his uncle's collection. In the succeeding decades, Rubin visited wineries, studied, tasted and amassed his own extensive collection of fine wines. He envisioned someday joining a clubhouse for wine lovers.

"But nothing like that existed," Rubin says. And so he opened Vin Cella on Fourth Street. Vin Cella, its Web site touts, "is the most luxurious wine storage and tasting facility in the world." Maybe. But Vin Cella is more than a climate-controlled warehouse. It's an elegant, comfortable place where Rubin can converse with like-minded people and keep his collection, and the collections of others, secure.

Located just north of Fruitville Road, this converted antique showroom features 52 private, climate-controlled "cellars" (40 for rent) in which wine lovers can store up to 3,000 of their most prized bottles. Richly appointed with plush furnishings and artwork, Vin Cella also boasts a Tuscan-style tasting room and a cozy lounge area and library where "members" can meet for monthly tastings or casual get-togethers.

Rubin says he spotted the building by accident. "Not one real estate agent had taken me to this area of town," he says. "I loved it the moment I saw it." He cites its Old World ambience, reasonable rent and proximity to downtown professionals and condominium dwellers as reasons to be there.

Rubin says he's excited by the area's transformation. "I've seen neighborhoods like Victoria Park (in Fort Lauderdale) go from the worst to the best in a matter of years. That's what's happening here with the boutique businesses coming in. Two years ago, this was considered the edge of town. Now it's quickly becoming the chic spot to be."

On Rubin's wish list are more entertainment venues, sidewalk cafes and places where young people would feel comfortable. "This should be a fun little pocket of the city," he says, "trendy, but not pretentious."

Kelly Kary of Sarasota Olive Oil Company

When Kelly Kary retired from her fast-paced advertising career in Detroit in 2000, she and her husband Bill moved to Longboat Key, where Bill had been vacationing for 25 years. While pondering her future, Kary took a wine- and olive-tasting tour of Italy. Halfway into the tour, she realized she was spending more time at olive oil companies than at the wineries. A year later, after visiting Napa Valley's St. Helena Olive Oil Company, Kary decided she wanted her own olive oil specialty shop.

Last summer, she opened The Sarasota Olive Oil Company on Central Avenue in the heart of the Rosemary District. (It moved to the old Ace Theater building around the corner on Fifth Street in early May.) The store specializes in top-shelf oils and vinegars, olives, gourmet food products, kitchenware and olive-based products for the skin. Part proprietor, part teacher, she'll spend as much time as it takes to educate customers about the varieties of olive oil, inviting them to detect each oil's complex flavors by sipping samples in tiny plastic cups.

The 42-year-old entrepreneur says she chose the Rosemary District because she wanted a unique storefront in a "cool area" that was not as congested as Main Street. Eventually she'd like to see a car-free zone in the district, along with pedestrian-friendly plazas with open markets and al fresco dining.

"What works about the Rosemary District is its funky quality," she says. "I don't have a problem with upscale stores moving here, but we don't want to out-price the small entrepreneur, because these are the people who will keep the creative mix alive. And it's that mix that will attract foot traffic."

Raymond Schilcher of Ray's at Bob's Place

Raymond Schilcher and his sweetheart, Melanie Haddock, moved to Sarasota from Martha's Vineyard in November 2004 and bumped around a bit, wondering what to do next. Three months later they opened Ray's at Bob's Place.

Their favorite lunch spot was Bob's Place, a breakfast/lunch diner on Central Avenue with walls covered in old circus photos and memorabilia. Schilcher, a master chef who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, had owned and operated restaurants for more than two decades. "We looked at Bob's Place and realized it would be the perfect venue for what we wanted to do-offer gourmet cooking in a comfortable, informal atmosphere." Owner Bob Horne was more than agreeable, and Ray's at Bob's Place was born.

Three nights a week, Schilcher and his crew turn Bob's Place into an intimate, sophisticated restaurant with room for 30 diners. They offer a prix fixe ($35) gourmet meal with a selection of appetizers, salads, two entrees and dessert, and invite diners to bring their own wine or beer.

Two weeks after opening, Schilcher says, "We were turning people away." Since then, word of mouth has spread and reservations are difficult to come by.

The Rosemary District is, according to Schilcher, a "class-act," the only place in town he would want to have a business. "In three years you won't recognize this place," he says. "It's downtown's golden spot."

As a new father (the couple's daughter was born in March), Schilcher admits he has a lot going on. But that hasn't slowed him down. Now that Ray's has taken off, he and Melanie and another couple are investigating developing a 40-room boutique hotel somewhere in the Rosemary District. "The area is blossoming," he says, "and we're here at the right time."

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