A Town Grows Up

By Robert Plunket January 1, 2009

Towns live organic lives, just like people. They grow up, they succeed, they fail, they reinvent themselves, and in the process they discover who they are.

Who is Sarasota? We’ve been thinking about that a lot lately at Sarasota Magazine, as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. Back in 1979, Clubhouse (as we were then known, and what a telling observation about how to title a magazine in this town) was a lively new monthly. We look at it today, and while we are proud, we also cringe a little at how innocent Sarasota Magazine—andSarasota—used to be.

What made us what we are? Let’s look back at the turning points of the past 30 years, the forks in the road that decided our journey. . .

1982 The Interstate Expands to Sarasota


The first fork was the road itself—the opening of I-75 back in 1982. The exact date is a little hard to ascertain, as different exits opened at different times, but the day of completion, the first time there was an unbroken stretch of road, is a day that changed us forever.

Before the interstate,Sarasotawas a hard-to-get-to beach town on the wrong side ofFlorida. It had some fame as the home of the circus and as an upscale artist’s colony, but it was isolated. Many of its residents liked it that way.

The traffic pattern between towns in this part ofFloridahas always been a nightmare. Since the population centers developed on the water, what might be a mile away as the crow flies could easily be 60 miles by car. A trip to see a Tampa Bay Bucs game was an hours-long ordeal of red lights and little towns. OurSarasotaHigh Schoolfootball team is known as the Sailors because they used to arrive at their away games by boat.

When the interstate opened, it was like the railroad had arrived in the Old West. Suddenly, the possibilities were endless. The gold mine—in our case our beaches, weather and resort lifestyle—was now readily available to the prospectors, and the prospectors came. Now there was money to be made, and on a much larger scale than ever before.

Not only could you get toTampain less than an hour. You could drive all the way toChicagowithout hitting a red light. And, of course,Chicagocould drive here.

The interstate shifted the town’s geography. The eastern part of the county was opened up for development. Places like Lakewood Ranch suddenly became feasible. A whole new population center—the I-75 corridor—sprung up. It was affluent, youngish, and could go for days without driving intoSarasota. Today, as we anticipate the addition of Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom’s to our luxury retailers, notice where they’re putting them—the Lakewood Ranch exit on I-75.

Early 1980s  The First Million-Dollar Home Hits the Market

We were sitting around the office one afternoon when there came a yelp from the other side of the room. “Look at this!” one of the editors called out, and we all ran over to see. It was a real estate advertisement for a house on Siesta Key, a house we all knew, as it was easily visible from the north bridge. It was a nice house, big and new and vaguely art deco in its architectural references, from that awkward period just before Spanish Med hit and solved our design choices for the next 20 years.

But what shocked everyone was the price. It was right there in black and white. $1,000,000.

In the magazine we had an advertising section called Homes 200. The gimmick was that homes advertised had to cost at least $200,000, because that’s where the luxury market began. It went up, of course, way up, but waterfront mansions, very nice ones, were available for $350,000, and something listed at $750,000 or above had to be extraordinary.

But a million dollars? Impossible.

Within the year a million-dollar listing was becoming more common. One reason was the houses themselves. They were getting bigger and more elaborate. The McMansion seemed made for Sarasota, where old beach houses occupied the prime pieces of land. They were razed without a tear, and “starter castles” were constructed on the 50-foot lots. They were enormous, luxurious and very expensive. They had everything except the charm of the old beach cottages they replaced. 

Condos also got larger. The two-bedroom, two-bath low-ceilinged unit of the 1970s and ‘80s was growing into the vast 3,000- and 4,000-square-foot unit with eight-sided room shapes and trayed ceilings and niches set in marble entry foyers.

Today, the first million-dollar home still stands. It’s aged well; the vegetation has matured, and its High ‘80s style is looking rather elegant. Real estate experts estimate its current value as around $4 million. Tax rolls indicate there are 3,367 homes currently on the record as worth $1 million or more.

1986 Author John D. MacDonald Dies   


Few of us realized it, but that million-dollar listing was a sign that the Sarasotawe knew was about to disappear forever. What was it like, that old Sarasota?  Fortunately, we had a great writer who explained it to us. And if the death of John D. MacDonald in 1986 marked the end of the oldSarasota, it also laid out the parameters of the city’s soul, and that has never changed.

MacDonald was a best-selling mystery novelist, the guy who invented the Travis McGee series. He was an astute observer of human nature, the good and the bad, and working from what he saw every day inSarasota, he created a universal world that rings true with readers, generation after generation.

It’s a beautiful world, but a fragile one, and it has to be protected. Protection was the key theme of MacDonald’s work—brave men protect weaker men, men protect women, and all good people protect the environment. Protection is needed because evil exists, and its most prominent marker is greed and power-seeking.   

Aside from his skill as a writer and his pre-eminence as one of the founders of the ecology movement, MacDonald was the ultimate Sarasotan. He was fiercely intelligent, at the top of his profession, a smart businessman, active in the community, a loyal and generous friend. He lived in a big house onBigPass; it was designed to function without air-conditioning yet also withstand 100-mile-an-hour winds. His wife, Dorothy, was a painter, and they were active in the creation ofNewCollege. But as congenial as MacDonald was, there was always that reserve that great artists have, that self-imposed distance from the rest of humanity.

1989 The Sarasota French Film Festival Comes to Town

Sarasotahad always been a rather sophisticated city, but still, it remained a little insecure about how cool it really was. The Sarasota French Film Festival in 1989 changed all that. It putSarasotaon the map as a glamorous and cosmopolitan place.

This was the unlikely accomplishment of state Sen. Bob Johnson, unlikely because the former senator is the ultimateFloridagood old boy. But somehow he put together a deal with the French government and movie industry that they would showcase French films inSarasotaevery winter.

The French connection gaveSarasotainstant cachet. And the selection ofNew Yorkcritic Molly Haskell as artistic director gave the festival unassailable intellectual credentials. But the most potent element was the heady glamour of it all, as evidenced by the spectacular opening night.

Audrey Hepburn was the special guest. After the premiere film, a rather mediocre melodrama about a voyeur obsessed with his next door-neighbor called Monsieur Hire, the crowd—Sarasota dressed in its best finery and a phalanx of French intellectuals dressed the way French intellectuals dress—moved to the courtyard of the Ringling Museum. The courtyard hadn’t been used for a party in ages, and the effect was spectacular.

Sarasotalooked around in awe. If the town pulled this off, the town could accomplish anything. We were in the big leagues now.

1990s The Vicks Move to Town

Who was buying all the new mega-mansions? Who were all these new people moving in and taking over our social life? The newcomers were never more dramatically personified than with the Vicks, the golden couple who took the town by storm and then lost favor through a reckless act of self-publicity. No story quite so perfectly illustrates the larger-than-life glamour that wasSarasotain the mid-1990s.

The thing about the Vicks was that they were gorgeous. She (Charlotte) was tall and blonde, he (Mack, a urologist by profession) was tall and gray, but in a cool, male-model Armani kind of way. And they were rich. Friends whispered that they were worth more than $100 million, and that the fortune had been acquired in a colorful way, some story about Charlottewinning a cell phone franchise back in Louisianawhen she was working as a legal secretary. They had a big home on Westway in LidoShoresand set out to lead society. They—particularly she—worked hard, and within a year the Vicks were chairing this event and joining that board. He was named one of Sarasota Magazine’s 10 Best Dressed Men. They had become one of the most visible couples in town.

And they were living a lifestyle thatSarasotahad never seen before. They had the kind of limitless money of the ‘90s super-rich, the second and third homes, the jewelry and clothes, the private planes, the lavish entertaining. The annual Asolo cruise, to benefit the theater, became legendary and prompted famous feuds that last until this day.

Then one day in the fall of 1998, it started to unravel. There appeared a picture of Charlottein the Style section of the Herald-Tribune, reclining on a chaise, surrounded by a semi-circle of what one observer called her “vendors”: There was her masseuse, her tennis instructor, her hairdresser, the general manager of Saks and more. The point seemed to be, look at all the minions Charlotte Vick needs to maintain her busy lifestyle.

Sarasotadidn’t react well. There were letters to the paper saying this sort of thing was the reason there was a French Revolution. People wondered aloud about the town’s changing values.

The Vicks decided to move on. They put their house on the market (for $13 million) and went to another one of those towns, where, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “people are rich together.” Fitting for a couple right out of The Great Gatsby.

2001 Terrorism Hits Home

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left the entire country in shock, but here inSarasotathere were special ironies.

President George W. Bush was right here in town, watching second-graders read a book about a goat at EmmaE.BookerElementary Schoolon Martin Luther King Jr. Waywhen the planes hit. That fact alone makes Sarasotapart of the story, but what lingers just under the surface is the hijackers. A number of them trained in the area, both in Sarasotaand Venice. They lived among us, yet their time here is shrouded in mystery. Conspiracy theorists will speculate about them for years to come, but what is creepy for Sarasota is the unpleasant fact that the men training to destroy our country were doing it right here, under our eyes. In our beautiful town, evil was at work. John D. MacDonald would have understood perfectly.


May 22, 2003 The First YPG Meeting

The life of a town flows from generation to generation, and in this respectSarasotahad challenges. Many of the movers and shakers came here later in life, after raising families somewhere else, and their children had no ties toSarasota. And the young people who did grow up here often felt stymied by the limited opportunities and the lack of a social life. A case in point: Drayton Saunders, son of real estate mogul Michael Saunders.Sarasotaheld so little appeal for him that he moved toChileand opened a business making bagels.

All that began to change the night of May 22, 2003, when the very first Young Professional Group event was held at the now-defunct Ovo Café. It was put together by an ad hoc committee of Eric Massey, Matt Orr, Drayton Saunders (who had just moved home), and Zoe Goldfine, and they were hoping for, best-case scenario, a turnout of maybe 60 people. More than 250 showed up—along with a camera crew from ABC-7. The line went around the block.

Within weeks, things began to change. The young businesspeople were finding their footing. What began as a need to connect socially became a way to flex their newfound political muscle. The town’s anti-noise ordinance was their first target. Who wants a town with no live music at night? They managed to fight it and win. Young people were suddenly on boards and committees. A parallelSarasotauniverse was being created, driven by technology and fashion and hip restaurants and ways of doing business that theSarasotaestablishment had never seen before. It’s not your father’sSarasotaanymore.


May 19, 2004, 1350 Main Sells Out in 90 Minutes

If the terrorist attacks of 9/11 set off a period of malaise and war and political rancor that lasts to this day, their direct effects onSarasotadidn’t seem to do any permanent damage. In other words, the real estate market came back right away. That was the important thing.

In fact, it took off like never before. Whole new parts of town opened up; it was one new building or development after another. And resales shot through the roof. All you had to do was put a “For Sale” sign in your yard. One of our editors moved to the newly hot neighborhood ofSouthsideVillageand couldn’t figure out why people kept driving slowly past his house. Then it hit him—they were cruising for “For Sale” signs.

It was hard not to make money. The prices went up like clockwork, and what might have seemed risky was about as good an investment as you could make. It got to the point where you had to do a little real estate investing. You were being foolish not to.

The boom reached a climax the day that downtown’s hippest new condominium, 1350Main, went on sale. It hadn’t been built yet, but its 134 apartments sold out in 90 minutes. Many of the contracts were immediately sold for a tidy profit. Then sold again.

Those who “got in” considered themselves lucky. Particularly those who bought more than one unit. They were set for life financially. Or so they thought.

Nov. 16, 2007  SKY Sotheby’s Holds a Real Estate Auction

People professed to be a little relieved when the market peaked and seemed to actually go down just the tiniest fraction. We were having a “correction.” The pace had gotten a little out of hand, and the town’s real estate agents and developers—along with the town’s decorators, granite countertop dealers, and largely Hispanic construction crews—all could use a little rest. They’d been working nonstop for the past three years.

But when the correction turned into a dip, and the dip turned into a downward slide, people started to get a little worried. Where was the bottom, and when would we finally get there?

Prices were cut, then cut again. Oddly, this didn’t seem to work. Even the high-end market, usually immune to rules that govern the hoi polloi, seemed a little shaky. Drastic measures were called for, new ideas, and when SKY Sotheby’s announced a November auction of more than $200 million worth of local real estate, the town paid careful attention.

Perhaps no other real estate firm represented the boom more than SKY. The brainchild of Chad Roffers, a one-time Michael Saunders agent who left his former boss and took along her Sotheby’s affiliation, SKY was aggressive and innovative and very high-profile.

The idea of an auction scandalized real estate circles here. It was considered undignified, almost like waving the red flag of desperation. To counteract this impression, Roffers gave it theSarasotatreatment. When the crowd filed into the tent in the garden of the Ritz-Carlton, they were greeted by a band, a bar, food tables and the glossy brochures of a million-dollar marketing campaign.

The bar became more and more popular as the day went on. Things weren’t selling. People came, hoping to see the bottom of the market established. What happened was a peek over the edge and the realization that the bottom was nowhere in sight.

Fall 2008  The Country Rethinks Retirement

The baby boomers, the baby boomers. For years the town kept hearing about the baby boomers. When they started retiring and moving here, we’d see a boom like never before. Everything else, all the previous growth, was just a blip compared to what will happen when the country—and the world’s—enormous demographic born right after World War II, so well off economically after high-paying careers and comfortable stock portfolios, heads toFlorida in search of affluent, amenity-rich retirement.

The first signs that there might be a problem were minor and easy to dismiss. Articles appeared stating that the boomers were becoming more inclined to stay up North after they stopped working. Or move to college towns in theMidwest. Or toCosta Rica. These reports were easy to shrug off—at first. This isFlorida. This is whereAmericaretires. There might be a couple fewer than we anticipated, but they would come. How could they not? We had the weather, the year-round golf, not to mention an enormous selection of places for them to live, some just finished, some under construction, some about to break ground.

Then, in September 2008, came the financial meltdown. It took a while to sink in. The news kept getting worse and worse. Lehman Brothers. One bailout after another. GM heading for bankruptcy. And worst of all, the evaporation of retirement funds. “I’ve lost 45 percent of my net worth,” was the new mantra. Suddenly our new Sarasotans-to-be were rethinking things. Suddenly they didn’t have enough money to retire in splendor. They didn’t have enough money to retire, period.

At this point, nobody knows what the future will hold. Maybe the world’s economy will stabilize and recover quickly. Maybe our new President can calm the fear factor. But even if that happens, it’s likely that retiring baby boomers won’t be quite the income streamSarasotahad expected.

But we do know that when Sarasota Magazine celebrates its 40 anniversary in 2019, the town will be much different than it is today. It will be younger, greener, better run. Downtown won’t be quite as dense as we once thought, but maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Business will be conducted in amazing new ways and with technology we can’t even imagine. The arts will still flourish, because that is in the city’s soul. Philanthropy and concern for the environment will be more important than ever.

But most important are the things that never change. The natural beauty that drew us here in the first place. The fabulous lifestyle that we’ve had so much fun documenting over the past 30 years. And perhaps most important, the pride the town feels in itself, the sense that we live in a very special place. “Paradise” we call it, and the entire world agrees.

We’re at our biggest turning point ever. And now it’s time to turn the page and discover what comes next.

“Share yourSarasotadefining moments by posting a comment below.”


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