Most of us would agree that the economic, social and cultural future of downtown Sarasota will be shaped by what happens over the next few years. And we’d also agree that outcome will significantly affect Sarasota County as well as the region.
The good news is we have a committed architect for that future. The bad news is some of us have been abusing him with peevish pettiness and bureaucratic baloney. Not even close to a majority, but a few often-misguided individuals who are private citizens, business owners, government officials and media people.
John Simon is CEO of Pineapple Square, the $200 million multi-use redevelopment project that promises to change the face of downtown Sarasota. And he’s our hope. Simon graced the cover of the March 2007 issue of this magazine. Our cover story was “2007’s Top Developers: 10 Gutsy Guys Who are Transforming Our Region.” Now, 18 months later, with our local economy in a dismal state characterized by growing unemployment, increasing business failures, projects put on hold and others terminated, Pineapple Square continues to push forward. While its residential phase has wisely been put on hold, its first retail phase has progressed successfully, whereby its first four retailers (Brooks Brothers, Pastry Art, Sur La Table and Hyde Park Steakhouse) collectively are generating $500,000 in monthly sales. That’s a half-million dollars a month produced by attractive, much-needed new retail businesses located in previously vacant buildings. Simon will be shortly announcing another new addition to his growing retail roster. The success of these retailers should benefit neighboring establishments resulting in a vibrant downtown economy with increased real estate values and heightened appeal to new residents.
While other downtown projects folded, Pineapple Square kept going despite regional economic woes that followed an unusually onerous and costly 15-month approval process (almost a year longer than Simon had experienced with other urban renewal projects).
The John Simon I’ve gotten to know is intelligent, responsible, flexible and concerned about our city and its individuals. And he’s obviously patient and resolute. He walks the downtown streets, speaks with business owners and tries to please. If they’re reasonable, he usually does. Occasionally he has to deal with issues created by incorrect information or false assumptions that get blown way out of proportion, and he’s taken away from his development work.
You can hear the exhaustion and understandable frustration in John Simon’s voice when he says, “I would have misgivings in recommending Sarasota to other developers.” His statement is measured, not emotional. Here’s a guy with a 30-year distinguished career that includes development of several well-known shopping centers (including Tampa’s International Plaza) who’s been treated unfairly in Sarasota. Simon deserves a lot better. We owe him our generosity, not our meanness. I just hope everyone understands that if Pineapple Square succeeds and brings more people downtown to shop, dine and reside, we’ll all benefit in ways not currently imaginable.