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Business Observer Friday, Jun. 3, 2011 10 years ago

Sunset Story

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A diversified economy is a prized trophy. One Gulf Coast county believes it's on the right path, with wisdom its guide.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

An organization dedicated to the business of the elderly is maturing.

The group, Sarasota-based Institute for the Ages, is the foundation behind an effort to turn aging demographics into a product, service and policy innovation asset.

The institute is the brainchild of a group of Sarasota business and civic leaders who discovered a surprise fact when they studied census figures in 2009. That fact: Sarasota County is the oldest large county in the country — out of 3,850 counties. Charlotte County, it turns out, is the oldest small county in the country.

With 30.5% of its 369,675 people 65 or older as of 2009, according to the U.S. Census, Sarasota County is even older than Pinellas County, long thought of as the elderly leader. “We are really a lot older than they are,” says Tim Dutton, executive director of SCOPE, a local community group that helped launch the institute.

“There are very few things that really differentiate a county,” adds Dutton. “This happens to be one of them.”

The institute's first mission was to figure out how to best leverage its elderly statistics. But now it's nearly ready to move into the next phase, says Dutton. So within a few months, the institute could have its own executive director and become an independently run nonprofit group.

“This is a huge potential economic driver forever,” says C.J. Fishman, a member of the five-person institute launch committee who runs Fishman & Associates, a Venice-based commercial kitchen firm. “There will always be people and there will always be people aging.”

The institute hired RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to get going on elderly studies and partnerships. One significant study is a project with the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College. The mission there is to study how an aging workforce will impact businesses.

The institute is also working on a program with the Oregon Health and Science University on the elderly and technology.

The projects are big-picture by design, says Dutton. The goal is study first, then come up with solutions. One challenge is the volume and diversity of the elderly population is a big, moving target. Says Dutton: “It's hard to engage with older (people) in a meaningful way.”

Another issue in the early going, say Dutton and others connected with the group, was how to answer worries that by going old, the community would ignore young people, another prized asset. But Dutton and Roxanne Joffe, a local advertising executive and launch committee member, say those worries subsided once the group received positive early recognition.

“The name might be misleading,” says Joffe, president of CAP Brand Marketing. “It's more of a study on demographics than a study of old people.”

Individual, corporate and government entities, including the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, have funded the institute to this point. The institute is part of the EDC's five-year strategic plan.

It has taken about $200,000 to get to this level, says Dutton. But considerably more funds will be necessary for the institute to meet its backer's ambitious goals: A thriving nonprofit with an annual operating budget of $9.2 million within a decade.

“Businesses are starting to realize that the data is pretty strong on this,” says Dutton. “We will be the place that's at the edge of thinking on this issue.”

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