If I Were Mayor

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2009

We know everybody loves to hate them, but sometimes our poor politicians seem to get nothing but flak. So we turned the tables on some of the city’s most outspoken civilians and asked them just what they’d do if they had to run this place. Their answers ranged from the super-smart to the just plain sassy, and they also reflected the wildly different personal styles of those who penned them. We found lots to think about along with an occasional laugh in their off-the-cuff position papers—but see for yourself.

Harvey Vengroff, the feisty founder of mega-collection agency Vengroff and Williams and a Sarasota landlord who knows a lot about affordable housing, fired off some super-practical, ultra-specific points. Get ‘er done, Harvey!

Prior to demolition of a building that exists on tax rolls, the developer must escrow three years of future taxes. That would eliminate loss of tax revenue as in the cases of the Quay, Denny’s and Holiday Inn.

Eliminate the use of outside paid consultants. Enough smart retired people in town would volunteer their time.

Sell Van Wezel, Bobby Jones, Municipal Auditorium and Ed Smith Stadium with the provision that they retain current uses. Private industry will eliminate the losses and create property tax revenues. It now costs the city $2 million to operate these facilities.

Newtown: Allow Genesis [which offers free medical and dental services] to occupy space at 1740 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Create incentives for business that create employment/training of local residents.

U.S. 41 corridor: Raise the height restrictions to allow developers to use property profitably. Allow business to use property zoned for motel-hotel.

Merge Sarasota Police Department with the county to eliminate duplicate administrations.

Outsource many city functions to private industry. The use of any savings: 25 percent to surplus or rainy day fund, 25 percent to create venture capital for new business that create long-term jobs and 25 percent to reduce debt. Debt service is $4,128,038 per year.

Work with county to replace public school system with more charter schools.

City commission members should not be paid a salary. The current salary is not enough to attract qualified people. Retirees could do a better job and have more business knowledge.

Eliminate the city Web site ( It was designed to list affordable housing but tenants needing affordable housing do not have computers.

Not surprisingly, advertising whiz Roxanne Joffe, co-owner of CAP Creative, and chair-elect of the Downtown Partnership thinks it’s all about developing a stronger Sarasota brand and marketing it well.

Develop a Sarasota brand conceived with community input and buy-in followed by a marketing strategy targeting the various demographics we seek to attract. We must get polarized groups to work together toward the common goal of a vibrant, economically sound city that provides an exceptional world-class lifestyle. And we need to maximize all our assets—arts and culture, parks, downtown, events, beaches and bayfront—through an integrated effort that exemplifies the Sarasota brand. 

Sarasota has stunning parks that are sadly underutilized. Coordinate parks and recreation with the arts and culture community to program a year-round series of events in our parks.

Energize and resurrect the bayfront through the private sector via a world-class developer. The city could offer economic incentives—such as the highly desirable land itself—to leverage and entice development. This could become Sarasota’s signature, like the Opera House in Sydney, Australia. The bayfront is too valuable an asset to have bureaucrats develop. This project needs to be larger than life. I would work to remove all barriers to accomplishing this redevelopment.

State Sen. Mike Bennett is known as a friend of business, but his answers show he’s also a fan of good, clean fun. And as a successful politician, he understands that the abstract civic body needs a warm and personal touch.

Make sure the statue, Unconditional Surrender, never left town. I met my wife 43 years ago when I was in the Navy, and we never pass the statue that I don’t think about that. 

Bring back the Sarasota Tarpon Tournament. This was a great event for summer tourists; lots of downtown excitement and full hotel rooms of fishermen and guests. (Haven’t figured out how to have the excitement without killing the fish but, remember, I am king for the day.)

Work with Manatee and Hillsborough counties on an elevated train from south Sarasota County to the Tampa International Airport.

Never give a demolition permit to a property such as the Quay without having the developer ready to proceed with the next step. In that line, the Palm Avenue project would be a hotel, convention center and parking garage, not just a garage in the wrong place that will not help the retailers on upper Main Street. 

Work closer with area high schools to always have marching bands at all patriotic parades. Work with veteran’s organizations for a flag-raising and retirement ceremony every day downtown, maybe at the park in front of Marina Jack’s.

Ensure that Marina has a clean and well-run mooring field that visitors would look forward to staying at and visiting—a mooring field that would not be someone’s sewage lagoon.

Look for more residential density in town because it promotes commerce, alternative forms of transportation, and safety and happy people walking downtown in the evening. Create a marked, well-lit walking route throughout downtown so people would feel safe and interact.

Bring back the Lido Casino, perhaps not as a casino but as a small convention center or catering hall, a place where the less well-to-do could afford to have a wedding or high school prom.

Have every government telephone answered by a human being who would answer your questions with a smile. You would not have to press “One” for English, you would not have to listen to a option menu, you would simply ask a question of someone who would just be happy to have a job and be happy to help you enjoy the Sarasota experience.

Drayton Saunders, division leader, Michael Saunders & Company, thinks Job 1 is for the city’s fractious interests to be forced to all just get along.

If I were mayor, the first thing I’d do is wake up in a cold sweat. Sarasotans can choose to disagree about almost everything. The prospect of being yelled at for four years is less than exciting. Even more depressing would be the real possibility of getting nothing done.

But I’d try! I’d invite together business, neighborhood and nonprofit leaders and anyone else who represents a segment of our community and lock them in a room for the day. No elected officials allowed. Everyone would have to sign a pledge to spend the day talking in specific, measurable, time-sensitive terms about what they want Sarasota to become. No one could leave until a list of achievable goals was mutually decided upon, and everyone agreed to support them regardless of other disagreements. I would be thrilled to have a community playbook to follow. I would also be proud to be part of a community where the leaders could see beyond differences and unite for the common good.

William C. Zoller, past president of CONA and president of Citizens for Sensible Growth, is a reflective kind of guy who likes to start by understanding context.

I would first steep myself in history. I would have experts take me around the entire city and acquaint me with her landmarks and places of historic moment.

I would want to understand the key “moments” of change as she went from being a typical small town in an agricultural community to the center of art and culture she has grown to be. I would want to know who the important leaders (and their supporters) were who helped accomplish the “big changes”—A. B. Edwards, John Ringling, Owen Burns, and…?

In the early days, was there a general unity of purpose? What were the citizens’ major concerns through time? Perhaps most crucially, how and when did the dividethat seems to permeate every discussion or decision in Sarasota come about?

I would then convene sessions of the citizens to review Sarasota’s story, and I would initiate the process of creating a vision of what the “scroll” could show as it continued to unroll. I would charge the citizens to envision what they would want citizens 50 or 100 years from now to see on the scroll, and the future vision would be made in constant cognizance of the continuum that brought us to this moment.

Cathy Layton, assisted living facilities owner, and chair of Sarasota County Review Board, believes a good mayor needs good advisers. And she’s an organized exec who also understands that famous principle of public speakers: Tell ‘em, and then tell ‘em again what you told ‘em!


Develop a vision that strengthens the most fiscally important assets of the city, and then implement several measurable strategies to accomplish it. Focus on the basics. 

Assemble a diverse sounding board of smart, trustworthy, city-minded people to advise me in implementing my vision. More minds are better than mine.

Enlist the support of groups like SCOPE (Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence) and the Economic Development Council to identify why those people who are critical to any sound municipal economy live here, and then do what we can to have more of them live here. Truly know what works.

Take the top one or two major problems in the city, focus resources and attention, and fix them. We can’t do it all.

Liven up downtown. Encourage arts organizations to have outdoor performances regularly. Start dragon boating in the local waters. Get people outside and walking around to support downtown businesses, yet make sure events don’t impede business. Fun is good.

Focus on making Sarasota known for fitness and health, which would bring more sporting activities (like rowing and swimming and triathlons) which would fill hotels and resorts and restaurants and shops. Vitality brings youth, and youth brings stability and vibrancy. Healthy people are essential to healthy communities.

Dale S. Parks, AIA, of Seibert Architects is a big believer in blueprints and plans. And as vice chair of the city’s Community Redevelopment Advisory Board, he wants to see TIF (tax increment financing) money be put to its proper use of improving distressed downtown areas.

Implement the City’s Wayfinding program [cool and smart city signage] by moving the penny sales tax line item for Wayfinding to next year’s budget instead of 10 years from now.

Implement the dormant redesign and improvements to Fruitville Road. Installation of pedestrian sleeves along Fruitville will better connect the Rosemary and Gillespie Park areas with downtown Sarasota.

Dust off the City of Sarasota Master Plan 2020 and implement the projects identified in the document as priorities. The Master Plan is now almost 10 years old (halfway through the 20-year vision), and Sarasota has little to show for it.

Restore public parking access to city-owned properties at State Street and First Street. No valets and no more developer control over city property.

TIF funds are being depleted by interfund transfers, presenting even fewer opportunities to pay for such proposed projects as improving Fruitville Road’s connection to downtown. Divert the roughly $10 million TIF funding currently being reserved for the Pineapple Square project to other Community Redevelopment Agency projects.

Move forward with the plans for reconnecting our bayfront with downtown Sarasota. One of the biggest mistakes this city ever made was to allow a highway to be constructed as a physical barrier between these two valuable amenities.

Everybody knows Matt Orr (founder, is a whiz at the new media, and this 30-something social networker came up with talking points (and a shout-out) that totally reflect his famous energy and optimism.

Diversify the economy. Lay the ground for solar technology and tech companies. Provide incentives to startups, which are drawing out-of-area dollars into our community.

Letting established and cherished businesses like the Reds, the Sox disappear is insane.

Encourage foot traffic downtown, keep our bay clean, expand our farmers market, work closely with our already amazing Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, start a world-class festival, put a hotel on our newly proposed "world-class parking garage" site, adhere to the plans and never, ever be wishy-washy in decisions.

Provide Wired Whisk Cupcakes every Friday because they would make the city happy.

Calm and practical urban planner (and former Sarasota Chamber chair) Pamela Truitt of Truitt Consulting Inc. will create a master plan in record time, and leaves no room for whiners and outsized egos. We’d all better learn to play by the new rules and get along!

I would begin with a large sign at City Hall that states: Leave your egos, sharp tongues, legal grenades, fixations and biased arguments at the curb. Bring your good will, openness and willingness to work for positive change.

I will immediately begin a citywide visioning process for a sustainable master plan (economic, social, environmental and physical) that will take a maximum of 12 months from beginning to adoption, and then hit the ground running.

Projects that are consistent with the vision will find a greased permitting process—in and out in 14 days. I expect 99 percent compliance; as such, the demand for speculation and entitlements will go away. No break for inconsistent plans and projects—they will stay on the current (and totally unpredictable) permitting process, complete with the typical and countless roadblocks.

Within the first 30 days, I will appoint and chair a Community Leadership Council, whose members will consist of neighborhoods, business and development. The first year, the Council will meet twice monthly and will work through every hot topic. The second year, we will meet monthly, and through these meetings, we will come to consensus on where Sarasota is headed long-term. By the third year, we will be hand in hand: citizens, business and city.

(Thank goodness I have no appetite for elected office. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief!)

Visionary Larry R. Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design, never draws inside the lines, and he’s been telling all of us for years that art could be big business in Sarasota. And that’s just what he envisions in the city he becomes mayor of…in 2020.

If I were mayor I’d be marking the 10-year anniversary of Sarasota’s “Creativity Institute,” the world’s premier program in teaching innovation, design thinking and creative thinking to thousands of businesses and their employees from around the globe. Today our area is home to new businesses and innovative startups that have helped us design our way out of the economic slump we were in earlier this decade.

The Institute is part of Ringling College’s renovation of the old Sarasota High School into the stunning modern/contemporary art museum, Sarasota Museum of Art (SMOA) and its continuing education arm. The Institute has matured to include a multitude of disciplines: business, manufacturing, education, nonprofits, medicine, environmental science and many more.

Creativity and design thinking also has driven collaboration between the public and private sectors, and the culture of the greater Sarasota area has been truly revolutionized. All civic leaders have learned how to think about issues from a variety of creative perspectives. We are known as the “Creative Coast”—and we are one of the few places that has disbanded standardized testing in our schools and replaced it with creativity connections assessments, a “best practice” model to help transform the K-12 educational system.

Imagine my delight, too, when I saw in the Biz941 Daily e-newsletter today that DreamWorks was moving its studio to Sarasota! And, then there’s the Sustainability Institute, the Silver Enterprise Institute, and the Aging Institute—all outgrowths of work begun 10 years ago!

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