Thirty-three years ago, I walked into Sarasota Magazine, located in a rickety cottage in the then-shabby Rosemary District, and brazenly asked founder Dan Denton and his editor, Pam Daniel, if they would hire me. My first tryout assignment was covering an angel investor club (something I knew nothing about and apparently the angels didn’t either since the club never invested in anything). The story must have been acceptable because, shortly after, I joined the tiny Sarasota Magazine staff and began to cover everything from real estate to murders to politics and religion before editing the company’s recently retired business magazine, 941CEO.
This is my first column as editor of Sarasota Magazine, a title I’m still getting used to after taking over from Pam. It feels a little like walking in a pair of shoes that doesn’t quite fit yet.
I think that’s how we’re all feeling about Sarasota right now. Almost overnight, the place doesn’t fit into its familiar shape or feel. New communities, new high-rises, new people and the staggering number of cars clogging our roads sometimes make me feel like I fell asleep on a road trip and woke up in a strange place. Fear of what Sarasota is becoming is a more common conversation today than real estate prices. As David Hackett’s cover story on our future reveals, Sarasota is undergoing a huge transformation. The city and big chunks of the county will be unrecognizable in 10, or even five, years.
Most of our growth will be fueled by baby boomers, many of them affluent, and a good number of them CEOs and top executives of major companies. We can see the baby boomer influence in the new luxury condominiums, crowded restaurants and traffic gridlock—and in the big contributions they’re making to our institutions. One couple just last month made a single $15 million gift to Ringling College of Art and Design, another has led a successful $52 million campaign for Mote Marine Laboratory and a retired pharmaceutical CEO from Cincinnati is spearheading The Bay, the 42-acre redevelopment of our downtown waterfront. We’ve always had civic and arts-minded philanthropists, of course, but these latest newcomers are bringing a new level of leadership and wealth that will shape our educational, scientific, cultural and arts institutions for generations to come.
At the same time, we face enormous challenges. Conflicts between older generations and the young, between the haves and the have-nots, between a growing Hispanic population and a dominant white culture play out in the lack of affordable housing, our low wages, a fight over the funding of schools and health care. Population growth is also encroaching on our natural lands and altering our beaches as we simultaneously face the need to plan for sea level rise.
But we’ve been grappling with growth, nature and cultural conflict since I arrived more than 40 years ago, and fears about overcrowding date back to the 1920s when John Ringling began to develop the town. The big question facing us now in this time of historic transformation is how do we keep our quality of life as we change? What do we want to become and do we have the political will to make it happen?
Growth comes with benefits. The old rundown Rosemary District is now one of the most exciting neighborhoods in town. People are moving to downtown Sarasota in droves and filling our restaurants and stores. Our universities are growing, new businesses are opening and I hear more people speaking foreign languages in the grocery store.
I remember the first time I landed in Sarasota as an 18-year-old New College student. I walked off an Eastern Airlines plane on an August afternoon onto the blistering tarmac after a direct flight from Pittsburgh. I picked up my suitcase and hobbled straight onto the New College campus. I must have been drenched by the time I got to my dorm, but all I remember is feeling intoxicated by the sun, the palm trees and the earthy smell of a hot, baking landscape. I fell in love right on the spot. And despite all the changes and all these decades later, I’m still intoxicated by this place and still eager to tell the stories of Sarasota.