Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2009

›› In September the Sarasota City Commission—not always viewed as a champion for downtown’s small businesses—halted its plan to install parking meters along Main Street and other downtown roads. Not long after that decision, the commission reconsidered a plan to charge fees for street festivals and parades after business advocates complained the extra fees would put a halt to many events that attract visitors and their dollars. Has the Sarasota City Commission become more downtown business-friendly?

Hardly, say several downtown business advocates.

Both decisions resulted after an avalanche of public comments and e-mails. The reality, they say, is that in this era of full-throttle, survival entrepreneurship, commissioners continue to turn a deaf ear to business community requests.

Phil Chmieleski, chairman of the Downtown Partnership of Sarasota, says, “There are opportunities to get very aggressive to support downtown and small business, and most of that comes from supporting growth. Sadly, a lot of the opportunities to embrace new investment downtown were met with high hurdles on the part of the commission.”

“Our issues go deeper than the parking meters or fees for events,” says Matt Orr, co-founder of Sarasota’s HuB, a creative business incubator. “Our city is in a serious crisis. Our leaders need to help set up a new economy and create a unique city.”

Paul Thorpe, former long-term executive director of the Downtown Association and current chair of Sarasota’s holiday parade, laments, “Most of them have no sense of what it’s like to own a business and turn on the lights in the morning and have two people walk in. They have no concept that every time you put an extra burden on them, it makes it harder to open their doors.”

Businesspeople have criticized the city’s elected commissioners for years, but the business climate is drastically altered today. Some commissioners, who were elected to rein in growth and maintain downtown’s small-city charm back when condominium, retail and hotel developers were all knocking at the door and building high-rises, are now forced into a very different role.

Do commissioners think their role has changed with the downturn in the market?

“The conversations have changed dramatically, 270 degrees from where we were three years ago,” admits Commissioner Kelly Kirschner. “We as a community need to shore up in protecting our brand and our identity.”

But maybe not all the blame for a weak downtown business climate should go to the commission. Downtown Sarasota has always lacked one cohesive, small business voice to rise above the clamor. Several merchants associations, the Downtown Partnership, and a chamber of commerce tend to appear before the commission one at a time, when their own concerns arise. A unified business voice, even on the hot button issue of parking meters, has not been evident, and a late summer attempt to merge Sarasota’s downtown groups broke down.

“It’s a very fractious group,” Kirschner says, and the new economic challenges have only magnified the differences. ■

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