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The People, Milestones and Game-Changing Events That Made Us Who We Are

A decade-by-decade look at Sarasota over the past 40 years.

By Susan Burns, Pam Daniel, Ilene Denton, Cooper Levey-Baker, Kay Kipling, and Megan McDonald February 25, 2019 Published in the March 2019 issue of Sarasota Magazine

The 1980s: A Sleepy Little Town Wakes Up

In the go-go ’80s, Sarasota did some going of its own, moving from a quiet (and little known) resort and retirement destination to a small city with sophisticated aspirations. The new I-75 made us easy to access, and flashier wealth found its way here, replacing modest waterfront homes with Mediterranean-themed mansions and fueling the expansion of the arts scene. We were Clubhouse then—we became Sarasota Magazine in 1987—and our pages were filled with ads for new communities like The Meadows, The Landings, Palm-Aire and the Longboat Key Club. Through it all—this “transitional and frenzied period in Sarasota’s growth,” went a letter to the editor—the city, in fits and starts, began to chart its future.


The brand-new Clubhouse Magazine (which became today’s Sarasota), launched in 1979, publishes its first “annual” guide to the joys of living here, our biggest issue to date with a whopping 64 pages.

The decade also starts with a jolt: A 1,200-foot southbound span of the Sunshine Skyway collapses into Tampa Bay in a blinding storm, killing 35.

The Sunshine Skyway collapses


I-75 through Manatee and Sarasota counties debuts, opening the region to eastward expansion and providing a speedy link to Tampa and St.  Petersburg.

Our Homes 200 advertising section premieres, showcasing homes for sale at $200,000 and up (“the loftier price brackets,” explains our publisher).


The Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra plays at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ new Orchid Ball, ushering in an era of opulent fund-raising galas. (Ticket price: $100)

The 30-acre bayfront living museum, Historic Spanish Point, opens.

The old A.B. Edwards movie theater.

The Asolo Opera Guild continues renovating the old A.B. Edwards movie theater that it purchased in 1979—its first permanent home—and hires Victor DeRenzi as its first artistic director. In 1984, it reopens as the Sarasota Opera House, a major step in revitalizing downtown Sarasota.


Sarasota-Manatee counties have just over 300,000 residents. American Demographics announces that 30 percent of the Sarasota metro area is 65 and older, the highest percentage in the nation.

After months of heated debate, County Line Road is renamed University Parkway. Eleven proposed residential and commercial projects are under review.

Architects and city planners unveil their ambitious R/UDAT (Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team) report, which becomes the foundation for downtown’s dramatic future growth. “The purpose of the Sarasota R/UDAT,” goes the introduction, “is to find ways to improve a good thing.” 

A roundtable discussion in our New Business magazine asks: “Are more tourists what this area really wants?”

Sarasota Quay


Sarasota Quay—the area’s first big multi-use development, with its upscale restaurants, retail and offices—opens on the downtown bayfront. It’s demolished in 2006 to make way for new development now underway.


The Ray family, whose three young hemophiliac sons have AIDS, make national news when their Arcadia home is destroyed by an arsonist and they move to Sarasota, citing its tolerance and compassion.

The fledgling Sarasota AIDS Support raises more than $140,000 at a star-studded Van Wezel variety show.

Sarasota Memorial Hospital introduces the area’s first MRI machine.

After controversy about nude sunbathing on North Lido Beach and T-back bikinis, the city bans public nudity. Two commissioners defend the move on The Phil Donahue Show.


Kenneth Thompson—a visionary who steered the development of everything from the Bayfront Park and Marina Jack to the Van Wezel—retires after an unprecedented 38 years as Sarasota’s city manager.

The county establishes its first tourist development tax on hotel lodgings, estimated to bring in $500,000 its first year.

Plans begin for a proposed park at Five Points.

Audrey Hepburn


Audrey Hepburn headlines the inaugural French Film Festival, which will run for seven years and later be replaced by the Sarasota Film Festival.

We publish the first of what will be many annual listings of top companies. It profiles 70 local private companies that gross over $10 million in revenues.

The 1990s: Growth, Glitz and Glamour

If the ’80s set the stage for growth, the ’90s saw that growth explode before our eyes—so much so that go-slow citizens proposed a moratorium on building in the first year of the decade. That didn’t happen; instead, well-heeled newcomers kept arriving and developers kept building new homes and communities to house them. We lost some historic landmarks but gained businesses and nonprofits that are today iconic. Shopping got better, and so did restaurants. As we approached the new millennium, fears about growth and change (and Y2K, the computer chaos forecast to strike when 1999 turned to 2000) were balanced by enthusiasm for our glamourous new amenities and what we all agreed was an unstoppable Sarasota economy.


The grand opening of Gulfcoast Factory Shops (now Ellenton Premium Outlets) with more than 50 stores thrills designer brand and bargain hunters.

Ads touting cigarettes are common in magazines, including ours. Case in point: the “new Capri 120s,” aimed at stylish young women.


We hold the first “Best of the Best” readers’ poll. Among the winners: the Colony Restaurant (in several categories), Longboat Key Club (golf course) and Spec’s (Best Place to Buy CDs).

Pee-wee’s Playhouse star Pee-wee Herman (aka Paul Reubens or Paul Reubenfeld) comes home to Sarasota to see his parents and is arrested for indecent exposure at an XXX-rated movie theater on the South Trail.


In a real estate story, we report that a waterfront lot on Casey Key now costs the gasp-inducing price of $250,000.

Michael Klauber and Phil Mancini decide to add a banquet facility to their Michael’s On East restaurant. Mr. Chatterbox writes, “Insiders say it will revolutionize Sarasota social life.”


In a nationally reported resolution of a baby swap case, Judge Stephen Dakan rules that baby Kimberly Mays’ biological parents have no legal rights, and she can stay with the family she knows.

The $3.5 million redesign of Bayfront Park causes a hullaballoo, as critics slam its decorated arches for blocking waterfront views.


Schroeder-Manatee Ranch breaks ground on master-planned Lakewood Ranch, paving the way for more communities still expanding “out east” today.

Buck O'Neil



After appearing on Ken Burns’ Baseball series on PBS, Negro leagues baseball star Buck O’Neil, who spent his youth in Sarasota, is honored with a special event here.

Saks Fifth Avenue opens in 1995

Image: Shutterstock

Prince Albert of Monaco visits for a business meeting, taking time out for a champagne dinner cruise and dancing at nightclub In Extremis.


The Sarasota Herald-Tribune branches into TV news with the SNN network.

After the Ringling home Ca’ d’Zan stars as a decrepit mansion in the film Great Expectations, restoration of the 1920s building begins; it will be completed in 2002 at a cost of $15 million.

Saks Fifth Avenue opens at Southgate Plaza, upping Sarasota’s fashion game.

Abandoning plans for its own building, the Sarasota Ballet partners with the Asolo Theatre, sharing the FSU Center’s facilities and helping to alleviate the Asolo’s financial problems.


The new Hollywood 20 movie theater complex on Main Street offers the area’s first stadium seating.

Circus performers Dolly Jacobs and Pedro Reis create the National Circus School of Performing Arts (later renamed Circus Sarasota).

We excerpt portions of Sarasota-based tennis star Monica Seles’ new book, detailing her struggles to return to the courts after being stabbed in 1993.

The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art celebrates its 50th anniversary with a glamorous Governor’s Ball, welcoming Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Selby Library


The new Selby Library, designed by architect Eugene Aubry, opens downtown, replacing the former library site on Boulevard of the Arts that later became the G.WIZ museum—now facing demolition itself.

After years of attempts to save it, the historic 1920s John Ringling Towers building is torn down; it will later be replaced by the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota.


Voters approve a Sarasota County referendum to buy and preserve environmentally sensitive lands, ensuring that rare and unspoiled sites will be protected for generations.

The Aughts: Pop Goes the Bubble

The 2000s tell a classic Florida story: real estate boom followed by bust. But before the bubble popped, we had fun. A new Ritz-Carlton showed we’d arrived, and surging development and home prices confirmed you couldn’t go wrong in Florida real estate. All that growth showered businesses with new customers and money. We basked in it, too, publishing 300-page issues packed with glossy ads. Office lore recalls a famous fight between the editor of our Sarasota-Manatee Business Magazine (later 941CEO) and the publisher, who was enraged by a cover that dared to ask if the bubble was about to pop. When markets plunged, home prices tumbled, with Southwest Florida the epicenter of the fall. Workers fled, bankruptcies erupted, foreclosures skyrocketed—and gloom settled over the town.

Katherine Harris


Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a prominent Sarasotan, sparks national controversy for her pivotal role in the presidential election recount, certifying George W. Bush’s 537-vote victory over Al Gore.


President George W. Bush at Emma E. Booker Elementary School on Sept. 11., 2001.

As President George W. Bush reads to second graders at Sarasota’s Emma Booker Elementary School, an aide informs him that planes have struck the World Trade Center. It is later learned some of the terrorist pilots trained in Venice.

The Ritz-Carlton opens downtown, signaling the city’s arrival as a destination for luxury travelers. 

Money Magazine names Sarasota Best Small City in the United States.


After years of bitter wrangling over its 60-foot height, the Ringling Bridge is completed and immediately becomes a beloved landmark.

“Pelican Man” Dale Shields dies, leaving behind a bird sanctuary now known as Save Our Seabirds.


Local home values rise 30 percent from the year before, with seasoned investors and novices alike snapping up everything from luxury resales to unfinished condos.

Four hurricanes hit Florida in 2004. 

Image: Shutterstock

Four hurricanes—Charley, Ivan, Frances and Jeanne—strike Florida in quick succession, wreaking $18 billion in insurable damage, most of it just south or east of Sarasota.

YPG, a networking and advocacy group for Sarasota’s growing number of young professionals, forms.

Charlize Theron

The Sarasota Film Festival has its flashiest-ever year, crowned by an extravagant gala at the Longboat Key Club honoring film luminaries Robert Altman, Werner Herzog and Charlize Theron.


One of the worst red tide blooms in the region’s history hits, lasting 13 months and creating a dead zone the size of Rhode Island. 

Developers demolish the Southeast Bank building to make way for 100 Central Sarasota, a 95-unit condo near Five Points Park.


Citing the Sarasota City Commission’s decision to criminalize sleeping outdoors, the National Coalition for the Homeless names Sarasota “The Meanest City in America.”

The Sarasota City Commission approves plans for Pineapple Square, an ambitious downtown condo/retail project. It gets derailed in the coming downturn.

Justin Mosley

A 50-second clip of SNN weatherman Justin Mosely panicking when a cockroach appears on set earns millions of views on YouTube.

Asolo Rep gets national attention for its Broadway-bound production of the musical A Tale of Two Cities. It soon closes in New York but wins an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for Outstanding New Musical.


Local banks fail or falter, lending dries up, and Sarasota-Manatee ranks as one of the top markets in the country for housing foreclosures. For the first time since 1946, the county’s population declines. Citizens name jobs and the economy their top worry in a county poll; in most previous years, it was growth. 

Citing finances, organizers cancel the annual Sarasota Reading Festival.

The school board votes to level Riverview High School, designed by renowned architect Paul Rudolph.


The median sales price for a single-family Sarasota home is $142,000, down from $322,683 in 2006.

The unemployment rate soars from 2 percent at mid-decade to 12 percent.

Arthur C. Nadel is charged with stealing nearly $400 million in a Ponzi scheme that drew in many local investors and charities.

The first Ringling International Arts Festival, a collaboration with Mikhail Baryshnikov’s Arts Center, presents three days of performers from around the globe, with the presence of Misha himself.

Now: Boom Town

As the decade started, we were crawling out of the recession, with widespread fear about how long the downturn would last. But our holy trinity—sunshine, warm winters and the beaches—remained, and soon a flood of retiring boomers and ultra-wealthy newcomers decided Sarasota was the place to be. New faces, new businesses, and new national (and international) accolades kept popping up. Our small-scale downtown morphed into a bustling urban center—and residential neighborhood—with close to $1 billion in new high-rise luxury condos and hotels, plus civic and nonprofit projects, sprouting wall-to-wall. Some mourn the charming little town that was, but there’s no turning back. Sophisticated, rich and roaring, Sarasota is all grown up.


Organized to promote acceptance for LGBTQ people, the first Harvey Milk Festival draws a crowd to downtown music performances. 

Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter talks about immigrants at a Manatee Republican dinner: “Build a wall and deport the ones you catch.”

Local businesses post a 3 percent increase in annual sales, beginning a slow journey to recovery.


“Dr. Beach” names Siesta Beach No. 1 in the nation. Officials correctly predict sun-starved hordes will come, boosting business and real estate sales.

Sarasota County opens its first roundabout at Jacaranda Boulevard and Venice Avenue, and drivers grapple with the mysterious art of navigating the maze.

Image: Shutterstock

Four hundred parking meters costing $414,000 are installed downtown. Outrage ensues, and the city commission votes to remove them.

Sarasota Ballet performs at the Kennedy Center in Washington, earning rave reviews. 


Foodies stuff their carts with frozen Indian dinners and two-buck Chuck at the new Trader Joe’s.

The city breaks ground on the Palm Avenue Parking Garage.

The Sarasota Republican Party names Donald Trump Statesman of the Year (and again in 2015).

Feld entertainment, owner of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, announces it will move its global headquarters to Palmetto. (Ringling Bros. shuts down in 2017.)


Lakewood Ranch is named one of the best-selling master-planned communities in the country.

Shoppers go bananas when Costco opens at Westfield Sarasota Square.

Sarasota high-wire walker Nik Wallenda tiptoes across the Grand Canyon.

New homebuyers include Rosie O’Donnell, on Casey Key; Michael Kors on Longboat; and James Carville and Mary Matalin on Golden Gate Point.

The Mall at University Town Center opens

Image: Barbara Banks


The mega Mall at University Town Center opens, confirming the town’s shift east.


Sarasota ranks No. 15 on a Coldwell Banker list of U.S. cities with the highest number (365) of active $1-million-and-up luxury home listings.

Sarasota MOD Weekend brings in lovers of modern architecture to admire the city’s midcentury gems. 

Venice gets a $15 million performing arts center.

In the annual county survey, growth and development replace jobs and the economy as residents’ biggest worry.

Siesta Key Beach


Dr. Beach names Siesta Key the country’s No. 1 beach for an unprecedented second time. More sun-starved hordes head our way.

The $21 million Siesta Key Public Beach pavilion is finished.

Downtown high-rise Vue ignites controversy for its bulk and closeness to the street.


At the first Women’s March, 10,000 people march across the Ringling Bridge.

The new Nathan Benderson Park hosts the World Rowing Championships, bringing in tens of thousands of international visitors.

Cat 4 Hurricane Irma wobbles east just in time, bringing us only Cat 1 winds.

The “diverging diamond” interchange—Florida’s first—at I-75 and University Parkway opens.

Alex Kompothecras, son of 1-800-ASK-GARY

Image: Courtesy MTV

MTV launches Siesta Key, a reality show about buff young rich brats, the brainchild of Gary Kompothecras of 1-800-ASK GARY; his son stars.

Beloved Snooty the manatee dies in a freak accident at the South Florida Museum, days after his 69th birthday.

Sarasota Magazine is named best city magazine of its size in the U.S. by the City and Regional Magazine Association.


A horrific red tide lingers for months, decimating wildlife and the tourist economy.

Frosty, Jungle Gardens’ 82-year-old cockatoo, retires after 45 years.

The Bay, a redevelopment project on city-owned property takes shape; next door, Quay Sarasota breaks ground on $1 billion in construction.

Mote Marine Laboratory wins approval to build a new aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens unveils an ambitious master plan.

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