Outside In

Photography by William S. Speer By Johannes Werner May 31, 2010

Like it or not, Sarasota-Bradenton has become part of something bigger.

I call it Tamormi. Or does Milanpa sound less threatening?

I’m referring to our integration with Tampa, Orlando and Miami. Most local elected officials choose to ignore megalopolis, or to practice passive-aggressive resistance. But Tamormi is already here. Failing to recognize this reality hampers our economic development opportunities.

Local passive-aggressiveness was on full display in April, when the Sarasota City Commission unanimously endorsed a county plan to rip out a potential lifeline to Tampa.

To build what local officials misleadingly call a “regional” transit system, SCAT director Tony Beckford suggested, and the commissioners approved, buying a railroad corridor and then tearing out the tracks that, 50 years back, allowed people to get from downtown Sarasota to downtown Tampa in a comfortable and very competitive one-and-a-half hours.

The county is planning to pave the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad and run local buses on it. The buses would run on the paved-over tracks from 10th Street and Orange Avenue to University Parkway. From there they would swing west to the airport and end at the USF campus. At best, these buses in a few years could take Sarasotans as far south as Westfield Southgate mall and as far north as Bradenton—if Manatee County chooses to get on board, which it hasn’t indicated it will. Not very regional, is it?

I am a strong believer in public transportation as an economic development tool (disclosure: I am a member of the Sarasota-Manatee Transit Group, which advocates for better public transportation). But the best I can say about this plan is that it will cause head-scratching among the feds whose money we’d like to get, in gobs.

This parochialism is hard to understand. Sarasota’s role on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) board has centered on making sure our big neighbors like Tampa don’t drain any resources from the county. Heck, our most recent commuter study for Sarasota-Bradenton was in 1999. Apparently, we don’t even want to know how many people want and need to travel to bigger cities.

Our implicit message is loud and clear: Get lost, Tampa. Bye-bye, St. Pete. We’re just fine.

Problem is: We aren’t.

For one, we’re still stuck with small-town bus systems in Sarasota and Manatee that residents only use if they have no other option, or if they can afford the luxury to waste hours waiting for transfers.

But more importantly, with our traditional economic development engine (importing folks from up North to sell them homes and services) broken, the era of splendid isolation is over. The dynamic megalopolis that surrounds us is the most likely economic engine that can drag us out of the hole.

Tamormi is real. Already, thousands of our high-skill and high-income 20- to 50-somethings organize their lives within a geographic space that extends way beyond the county line. Their frame of reference isn’t Main Street, Sarasota. It’s Ybor City, Raymond James Stadium, Disney World, downtown Orlando, Miami International Airport, Brickell Avenue and South Beach. They have jobs there, they do business there, they play there.

At 25 percent unemployment and underemployment, people here want the well-paying jobs in downtown Tampa or even Orlando, never mind the mega-commute.  

Given all this, tearing out the rail option is an act of economic self-amputation. It leaves us with more roads and more cars as the only option to react to the regional integration that’s already going on. I think the plan is too flawed to succeed—CSX would be dumb to sell the corridor now. Plus, several individuals, led by Alexander Grantt, a former Bonita Springs councilman and passenger railroad activist, are considering filing an injunction in federal court against CSX and Sarasota County, alleging that stripping the railroad would violate the Rail Passenger Act of 1970.

But if we really manage to convince the feds to de-designate the railroad and give us $100 million to pour concrete and asphalt on that right-of-way, we can forget Sarasota’s rail option for at least a generation. And that means less development for the urban cores of Sarasota and Bradenton, and more suburban sprawl.

Rail could be here in less time than you think. If there were political will to work with TBARTA, Sarasota and Bradenton could build an hourly commuter rail connection to Tampa in a matter of months. The secret is to think incrementally instead of in the billion-dollar terms politicians and builders usually do when it comes to commuter rail.

We already have the infrastructure. The stretch from downtown Sarasota to the Tropicana plant in Bradenton is awfully neglected, but the CSX tracks from Bradenton north are in 65-mile-an-hour shape. All it would take is at most 50 percent of the cost of SCAT’s fancy $82-million-plus bus project to refurbish the neglected tracks, install a cutting-edge electronic signaling system, buy half a dozen diesel rail shuttles (including air conditioning and wireless Internet access), and build simple, well-lit stops with level entry platforms, ticket dispensers, and park-and-ride lots.

My hunch is, these Sarasota-Tampa shuttles would be at capacity fairly quickly.

Local builder/entrepreneur David Ferdinand is putting together a trade delegation to the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico. The target date is October. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because two-thirds of the lush, tropical island used to be a Navy bombing range. Six years ago, the Navy handed the island back to the island’s 8,000-plus natives. It’s been an uphill struggle since.

Unemployment on Vieques is 60 percent plus, two-thirds of Viequenses live off the island, and the local economy depends on transfer payments. But then, there’s this gorgeous island and its potential for tourism.

To see the beauty, get Lord of the Flies from Netflix and watch it again. The movie was made on Vieques. If you’re interested in eco-tourism projects, hotel construction, small-town Internet infrastructure or agriculture projects, or if you’re simply curious about Vieques, shoot me an e-mail ([email protected]), and I’ll pass it on to Ferdinand.

Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and of, a Web site featuring real-time news about the Cuban economy, and hosts the Florida-Caribe show on WSLR 96.5 LP FM community radio in Sarasota. He can be reached at [email protected]

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