Open for Business
Speculative development around downtown Sarasota came to a screeching halt a while ago, but infill activity shows promise. If more of it begins to happen, this new, modest type of development could have great ripple effects for downtown.
In the case of the Fogartyville Community, Media and Arts Center, the impact could bring life, young people and music to a no-man’s land just four blocks north of City Hall. In August, Arlene Sweeting and David Beaton, the couple behind the original Fogartyville Café in Bradenton a few years back, bought a double-lot property at 525 Kumquat Court for $255,000.
The plan is to retrofit, possibly by March, two-thirds of the no-nonsense steel structure to include a café and performance space, coupled with a shaded patio that will hold more than 200 people. The Re-Fogartyville will be primarily a musician hangout, as Beaton puts it, hosting touring artists during night and weekend concerts and using local performers to open up shows. It will also host film screenings, lecture series and workshops. When it’s up and running, there will be two to three events per week, he says.
The most promising aspect of the Fogartyville revival is that it’s part of a community effort, guaranteeing constant support by volunteers and a built-in stream of free advertising. Both Sweeting and Beaton are “radioactive.” She is station manager of Sarasota’s WSLR 96.5 LP FM, the nonprofit community radio station, and he is founding chairman and a member of the WSLR board. (Full disclosure: I’m a regular host for one of WSLR’s shows.) The station will rent one-third of the building for its studios at market rate. Thanks to hundreds of volunteer hours, the new studio should open in February.
The radio’s presence is key for both Fogartyville and the neighborhood. WSLR organizes a constant stream of concerts and other fund-raising events. Beyond that, dozens of radio volunteers and local news reporters who walk in and out of the station every day will soon become patrons of the Sierra Station Café down the block and visitors to the new Citrus Square retail-office-apartment complex on nearby Orange Avenue.
I was in Cuba last November—one of my privileges of being editor of Cuba Standard—and I have no hesitation in saying that things are finally beginning to change there.
After two years of lingering in a cash crunch, the Communist government outlined its economic reforms. They are shaping up like a gradual, broad and coherent plan for decentralization, empowering municipalities, granting autonomy to businesses, accepting different forms of ownership, all the while increasing tax revenues.
To kick-start a dysfunctional economy, the leadership is laying off 500,000 state workers, encouraging at least 250,000 citizens to obtain a license to run their own businesses. The government is allowing private business owners to hire, and permitting private agricultural production and the purchase and sale of luxury condos by foreigners. It’s also creating special export zones for 100-percent foreign-owned companies and granting 99-year leases to foreign investors willing to build luxury condo projects.
The latter has already triggered proposals to build golf course and marina projects with thousands of condo units that initially could amount to more than $1 billion in investments. Investors from Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, China and Vietnam have lined up 16 projects that could put Cuba on the world maps of golfing and yachting.
To Florida architects, golf course designers and construction companies, the opportunities created should be obvious. Washington doesn’t allow them to participate in that piñata yet, but local companies should stretch out feelers.
The devil—as always—is in the details, and there are lots of those to figure out before a Communist Party Congress in April etches the reforms in stone. Not surprisingly, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who are prime candidates for legal “self-employment” are in wait-and-see mode.
Take Amaury. For now, the 41-year-old who shuttled me around Havana in his 30-year-old blue Lada is skeptical. Amaury has been running a series of “informal” businesses ever since he graduated from the University of Havana in the mid-1990s. He doesn’t think that what the government has to offer in return for a 50-percent income tax makes legalization worthwhile.
For instance, the Communist Party suggests the government should create a wholesale infrastructure to supply new restaurant owners, electricians, plumbers and taxi drivers with what they need to operate. The current cash crunch makes this, at best, a goodwill statement.
In the meantime, Amaury must continue having his Lada serviced by a state-employed mechanic who uses his employer’s workshop on Sundays for private business, while pilfering car parts. And then, the U.S. embargo—or bloqueo, as Cubans like to call it—stands in the way.
To Amaury, life boils down to this story: Back in 1956, his uncle got on a plane to Miami in the morning. The next day, he came back on the ferry to Havana, with a shiny new Chevrolet he had bought there.
An updated version of Amaury’s dream could be like this: He takes the overnight ferry from Havana to Fort Myers, borrows $1,500 from a cousin who lives in Sarasota, visits a used-car dealership in Bradenton, buys a used taxi, and gets back on the ferry at Fort Myers, heading home to Havana. He will pay back his cousin in monthly installments, thanks to direct banking relations between the two countries.
Problem is, Washington and U.S. laws want Amaury to overthrow his government first.
Fat chance. In the meantime Amaury, like many fellow Cubans, dreams of living in the United States.
Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and of CubaStandard.com. His column has won four first-place Charlie awards from The Florida Magazine Association. He can be reached at [email protected]