YES, we've heard all the stories and read the headlines. Florida is fizzling! Northern retirees can’t sell their homes, construction workers are fleeing, young professionals are losing their jobs, and even Sarasota, one of the fastest-growing places anywhere for just about as long as anyone can remember, is at a virtual standstill, with an infinitesimal growth rate of less than one third of one percent. But before we decide that it’s all over for Sarasota, it’s worth pointing out that more than 3,000 newcomers followed their dreams and moved here last year.
I decided I’d ask four of them about the Sarasota they see. Their stories reminded me that what makes this city special is so much more than yesterday’s robust real estate market—but hear them for yourself.
A little over a year ago, Robert Blattberg, 62, a well-known economist, turned to his wife, Rebecca Donelson, in Chicago and said, "We’re selling our apartment, getting out of the stock market and moving to Florida!" That decision not only sheltered them from the subsequent financial crash; it helped them "discover paradise," declares Donelson.
An art advisor and curator who’s worked at the National Gallery and Corcoran Gallery, Donelson had enjoyed visiting relatives as a child in the Clearwater area, so the couple decided to first explore the Gulf coast. They started by renting a place on Lido Beach. Within a week, Blattberg said, "Let’s buy a place."
They moved into their condominium at the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota six months ago and immediately plunged into the town full-force. If we old-timers sometimes take Sarasota’s cultural attractions for granted, arts connoisseur Donelson does not. In one recent week, she attended a brunch at the Hermitage on Manasota Key, concerts at Selby Gardens and the Van Wezel, a play at The Players, a board meeting for Season of Sculpture, and drove up to Tampa to check out a museum. She and her husband also love windsurfing under the Ringling Bridge and sailing in Sarasota Bay.
"You can never be bored here—you just can’t!" she says. "Sarasota is such a friendly place—and much younger than I thought. It’s dog-friendly, too"—which means their Australian shepherd mix, King, has developed a taste for different dishes at downtown cafes.
And like every other newcomer I talked to, the two still "jump up and down when we hear the weather report from up North," she says. We may have forgotten about bone-chilling winters and blizzards, but trust me, these recent arrivals remember them vividly.
The couple plans to divide their time between their vacation home in Aspen and their Sarasota apartment, but Blattberg has warned his wife that their trips to St. Barts may be over. "The water is just as beautiful here," he says, "plus we can windsurf and sail, and if we want French food, we’ll just go to C’est La Vie!"
At 42, Belgian-born France Engels still looks like the runway model she once was. In her new L’Atelier F in Burns Court, Engels presides over a collection of designer clothing—including her own creations—that could hold its own in Soho or Paris. Her career includes managing stores in France for Yves St. Laurent and Lanvin, but she says her Sarasota customers are as appreciative of beautiful textures and fabrics and original design as shoppers in Paris. "Even in this economy, we are doing well," she says, attracting customers who range from the 70-year-old who recently bought a $2,000 pair of edgy Jitrois leather pants to young professionals snapping up tropical-hued evening dresses.
She and her daughters, now 20 and 16, discovered Sarasota on holiday some years ago. They instantly fell in love with the downtown bayfront, and as a horse lover, she was excited to discover the pastoral landscape and equestrian lifestyle out east. The family returned often, and in September, they arrived for good.
In a whirlwind few weeks, she signed her lease in Burns Square ("when you have soul and history [in one area], that’s talking to me," she says) and enrolled her younger daughter in high school.
"I like the way of life and the positive spirit here," she says. "The French are sometimes angry and negative."
Her next goal: placing her designs in selected shops in New York and Chicago. Helping her with that is her boyfriend, a Chicago marketer she met—where else?—down at the Sarasota bayfront she loves.
Nancy and Jack Malo spend most of their year in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where he’s an in-vitro fertilization physician. At 62, Jack is not quite ready to retire, but last summer, they decided to cash in on falling real estate prices and buy a canal-front home on Siesta Key. Nancy, 59, has spent most of the winter here overseeing major remodeling, while Jack flies down for long weekends or the occasional week.
Why Sarasota? Scuba divers and underwater photographers who explore the waters of Indonesia every year, they’d considered retiring to Fiji or Grand Cayman, but they wanted to be close to good medical care. They were impressed with Sarasota Memorial Hospital, and besides, says Nancy, "Siesta Key is like a Caribbean island—laid-back and beautiful." She’s been surprised by the quality and variety of shops here, from home emporiums to Saks.
The two love kayaking, riding their beach cruisers and exploring "the big restaurant scene." And while many locals complain that weak leadership has stalled downtown redevelopment, that’s not the way these newcomers see it. "Downtown is always hopping, night or day, so vital and not decaying like some places," says Nancy. Most of all, she says, Sarasota’s tropical beauty "is uplifting to the spirit," and she’s counting the days until Jack retires—probably in two or three years.
When we think of the film industry, few of us think of Sarasota, but the ever-expanding programs at Ringling College of Art and Design recently lured a Hollywood cinematographer here. California native Mark Parry, 48, has worked on a variety of films and taught film at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., for the last decade. In the fall of 2007, Parry accepted a position with Ringling College’s new digital film program, and he and his wife, Tammy, moved to Sarasota with their twin daughters, now five. "Sarasota is beautiful, the weather’s great, and Ringling is small but progressive, with great technical infrastructure," he says.
Parry, now acting head of Ringling’s film department, says he relishes the opportunity to build the program from the ground up and serve as a hands-on mentor to his students, who are of "very, very good caliber."
Because he’s so immersed in his job and still does freelance film projects, Parry says he and his family haven’t done much in the larger community. But they love living in Lakewood Ranch, with its new houses and proximity to good schools, and taking the kids to Siesta Beach, where his daughters were so charmed by the silky white sand that they tried to take handfuls home in the car. He laughs at people who complain about traffic on U.S. 41. "It could take me two or even three hours to go 20 miles on the California freeway in rush hour," he says.
But he does complain about one Florida phenomenon: "We can’t let the girls play outside because we’ve got alligators in the lake in our back yard!"