The belief that some Sarasota officials are, and have been, hostile to businesses is to a large extent earned — this is a city, after all, that has floated new building construction moratoriums several times in the past 50 years.
But the anti-business vibe now includes what some consider a cultural institution animus, stemming specifically from two Sarasota City Commission decisions. The latest: A 3-2 vote to reject a key portion of a proposed redevelopment project at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, an iconic bayfont nonprofit tourist organization that dates back nearly 100 years. That decision followed a 4-1 vote in May to reject the Sarasota Orchestra’s proposal to build an 1,800-seat concert hall on seven acres of Payne Park, a 39-acre park just outside downtown.
Both projects brought out vocal opposition groups who packed city meetings and hearings. The opposition’s success in defeating proposals — combined with the idea that Sarasota has stiff-armed some longtime organizations that have helped make Sarasota, Sarasota — has some business leaders worried.
“We need to be more accommodating of our cultural institutions,” Ian Black Real Estate Partner and co-Founder Ian Black tells Coffee Talk. “They want to find the right climate to operate in.”
“I certainly understand the concerns of neighborhoods; I live in the city, but in this case it seems like [city commissioners who rejected Selby’s proposal] listened to a vocal minority over their own staff,” adds Black, referring to the Selby proposal that was initially approved by the city planning commission. “We can’t have this kind of knee-jerk reaction.”
Beyond pure leverage, Orchestra and Selby officials, in public statements, have said they will do what’s best for their respective organizations — down to moving out of the city. Possibilities include Lakewood Ranch, a rapidly-growing master-planned community in north Sarasota County and east Manatee County.
The Players Theatre, the oldest community theater in Sarasota, has already made a move like that: It sold its downtown building for a move to Lakewood Ranch. And although not totally leaving Sarasota, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium is planning a $130 million project just outside Lakewood Ranch, the Mote Science Education Aquarium.
Argus Foundation Executive Director Christine Robinson concurs with Black that the possibility of other organizations leaving Sarasota is legitimate. “We have to meet the demand for arts organizations,” Robinson says, adding that Argus, a pro-business group, doesn’t take positions on land issues or specific decisions but on policy. “If we don’t, they will go somewhere else. They will go somewhere that welcomes them with open arms.”