By Joey Panek
It was summer 2009, and I’d been living in Sarasota for 10 years. I was a professional stage actor and often worked in Tampa. In between gigs, I would pass the weeks in Sarasota.
But it wasn’t the Sarasota that I live in now.
That Sarasota had a beach, a bridge and some chain restaurants. I was kind of a Level 2 tourist, knowing just enough about the place to keep myself occupied, but little beyond that. I was thinking about changing careers and, after weighing my options, I had decided that come fall, St. Petersburg was going to be my new zip code. Without the typical “nights and weekends” schedule of a working actor, I started what was to be my final Sarasota summer with an empty calendar and a series of invitations to events I’d never heard of.
During that July and August, I began to burrow into a Sarasota I had no idea existed. One afternoon I found myself drinking draft beer out of the back of a friend’s pick-up truck, waiting in line for my first roller derby bout. It was so cool to see young professionals duking it out on skates—my first clue that Sarasota offered more than I had yet experienced.
Then I began delving into the arts scene. It’s ironic, I know, that a performing actor had no idea about the arts in his own town, but as I sat in the front row of the second annual Sarasota Improv Festival, cheering on our local team (including my soon-to-be friend and business partner, Christine Alexander), I was amazed that our town was hosting some 10 improv comedy troupes from around the country. At the s/ART/q Print Party at the HuB, I discovered I could choose any of 10 different local artists’ original designs to screen-print on my clothes. And the Vinyl Music Festival premiered; downtown clubs were wall-to-wall with people my age.
That summer wiped my move to St. Pete off the map and elevated my Sarasota resident status from Level 2 tourist to full-on local.