When Sarasota developers Charles Githler and Andy Dorr attempted to build a $100 million conference center downtown six years ago, the project stumbled.
But the dream, to raise Sarasota's national profile with a business meeting space that can draw in hundreds of events a year, has never gone away. And after decades of starts and stops, including the 2009 effort from Githler and Dorr, momentum could be percolating once again.
“We're an ideal conference location compared to many throughout the country,” says Dorr, who sits on the boards of Visit Sarasota County and the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. “We have wonderful recreation and leisure — hence why we draw 4 million people per year here.”
Dorr was one of several proponents quoted in a recent story in the Sarasota Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer, about the potential resurrection of a conference center. Proponents point to a booming tourism industry and a political shift on the Sarasota County Commission that points toward more aggressive economic development.
“We've slowly been rebuilding stronger support, and last year we convened a group of about 10 of us and had some roundtable discussions,” Dorr tells the Sarasota Observer. “We decided we should again continue to try and build momentum.”
Some government officials agree, at least in principle: Three county commissioners — Chairwoman Carolyn Mason, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo and Commissioner Alan Maio — recently went on the record in support of a conference center project. Commissioners and some business leaders often cite the city's meeting space limitations: The 20,000 square feet at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota is the largest venue near downtown.
There are several obstacles. Any large-scale project that includes tax dollars is certain to generate opposition, for one. And conference centers, wherever people build them, are somewhat risky projects.
Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley, while not opposed to something that could bring more people to town,recommends caution. Her experience has shown successes and failures, depending on how a community approaches large meeting spaces.
“We really need a major dose of reality as we go through this process,” says Haley. “And we have to understand that they're extremely expensive to build, but that there will be continuing operation expenses to market and sell the space.”