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Post office site pitched for Sarasota convention center

Many proposals, ideas and plans for a convention center in downtown Sarasota, going back 30 years, have been unsuccessful. Some enterprising developers believe they have a way forward.


An overhead view of the proposed site of a convention center and hotel by developers Mark Kauffman and Sadek Omar of Jebcore Development. The site includes the city-owned federal courthouse building and the U.S. Post Office.
An overhead view of the proposed site of a convention center and hotel by developers Mark Kauffman and Sadek Omar of Jebcore Development. The site includes the city-owned federal courthouse building and the U.S. Post Office.
Courtesy image
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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Some Sarasota developers want to team up on a decade-long effort to bring a right-sized convention center and adjacent hotel to Sarasota, and they are asking the Downtown Improvement District Board of Directors for help.

The idea is to redevelop the south side of the block of Ringling Boulevard between Orange Avenue and Pine Place, the site currently occupied by the city-owned Federal Building and the U.S. Postal Service office and its vehicle maintenance yard. The federal building would remain and the new construction would occur on the post office property.

Sarasota developers Mark Kauffman and Sadek Omar, managing partner of Jebcore Development, pitched the idea to the DID board March 5. Two months later, the board heard from Wayne Appleby, the city’s economic development manager, who suggested the board consider backing the idea by lobbying the Sarasota City Commission. 

Kauffman and Omar told board members much has to happen first, including the city gaining ownership of the post office property. They said the U.S. Postal Service is looking to relocate both the main office and the maintenance yard in separate locations, and that often when the federal government vacates property it is deeded to the host city.

The pitch is that the city would retain ownership of the property and lease it to the partnership, which would build and operate the facilities.

“The city would not be obligated to any fiscal loss,” Kauffman said, suggesting possibly a revenue-sharing arrangement with the city. “We also envision acquisition of several properties on Main Street so that there could be a dramatic entry and exit to (and) from this convention center to Main Street. What we need is a convention center. What we do not need in the post office area is another luxury condo tower.”

At the March DID meeting, Omar presented a similar project under construction in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Although the exact specs of a Sarasota convention center have not yet been developed, the model of the medium-sized meeting facility and an adjacent boutique hotel is the sweet spot lacking in Sarasota. 


Long history

The lack of such a spot has come up multiple times from business, chamber, tourism and economic development leaders in the area for some 30 years. In 1994, a study from KPMG Peat Marwick of St. Petersburg found that Sarasota “needed both a hotel and a meeting facility and suggested a 300-500 room hotel with 70,000 to 125,000 square feet in meeting space,” according to a timeline of stalled convention center projects from Visit Sarasota County. The report added that the project should “be under one roof.” 

In 2004, Sarasota County officials paid $80,000 for a study that found a similar need, calling for a third hotel in addition to the Ritz and Hyatt Regency. Multiple other entities, from the initial team that worked on the Quay to local developer Charles Githler to the founders of the Sarasota Film Festival, have looked into a conference or convention center downtown in the past two decades. 

In addition, according to the VSC timeline, in 2015 all five Sarasota County commissioners supported an effort to look at “conference center feasibility in Sarasota, driven by the need to fill the new hotels under construction in downtown Sarasota.”

And, finally, in 2019 VSC, in its draft of its 2025 Strategic Plan to Sarasota County Commissioners, called for exploration of a conference center. 

All of those efforts, from a combination of cost, inertia, debate and more, have led to the same result: no conference/convention center in Sarasota County, with no one out there proposing one. Sarasota Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Heather Kasten, in a 2023 Business Observer story, summed up what many leaders have been saying:  “It’s odd for a county of our size, with 400,000 people, that we don’t have a convention center.”

JEBCO Ventures is partnering with Virginia-based Omnium to develop this convention center and hotel in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Jebcore Development, in partnership with developer Mark Kauffman, is proposing a similar project in downtown Sarasota.
Courtesy image

Unique opportunity 

Speaking directly to the DID board’s mission, Kauffman and Omar, with the help of downtown advocate and Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association President David Lough, said such a convention facility would provide a steady flow of new visitors to downtown retailers and restaurants. 

The window of opportunity is now, they said, because of the coming potential availability of the property; the planned Benderson Development repurposing of the county government administration building across Ringling Boulevard that may also include a hotel; the eventual loss of the event space at the Hyatt Regency when it is redeveloped as a condo tower; and possible integration within the city’s coming economic strategic plan rewrite.

That’s where Appleby enters the picture. 

“What I really think your role is, is do you want to be an advocate for this project and to ask for the city to consider it and study it,” Appleby told the DID board. “If that's the case then you probably allow the chair or a representative to meet one-on-one with each of the commissioners first and then do a board report on this project and determine whether or not the City Commission wants to entertain being a major player in this.”

The board was generally in support of the plan.

“It's really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire that piece of land,” said board member Eileen Hampshire. “It just seems like there's synergy there.”

Kauffman also addressed the board during the May 7 meeting, laying out the roadmap for success of the project, which includes a land swap. 

A preliminary conceptual rendering of a convention center and hotel on the site of the U.S. Post Office in downtown Sarasota. The rendering was designed by Hoyt Architects.
Courtesy image

The post office, he said, is about 70 years old and the U.S. Postal Service wants a modern facility downtown. Meanwhile, the city owns land on U.S. 301 next to the courthouse, which he said is an ideal location for that new post office.

“The concept is bigger than the DID and is bigger than the city, so it has to go to the national level and we have to incorporate maybe somebody like (U.S. Rep.) Vern Buchanan to help us get there,” Kauffman said. “But you’ve got to get the ball started and the concept is for the city to make an offer to the United States of America that we will give you the land on 301 and you can build your modern post office right there.”

At the conclusion of the May discussion, DID Business Manager Julie Ryan, sensing a consensus of the board, made her recommendation.

“I would suggest that the chair (Chris Voelker) set up meetings with the individual city commissioners, and then perhaps at one of our next meetings, we officially put it up for a vote to present a board report,” she said. “I think once the chair has the opportunity to meet with the commissioners she would have a better idea of the receptiveness of it at this time.”

Ryan added the matter may also be brought forward at its next meeting, when an appearance by City Manager Marlon Brown is on the agenda.

This story originally appeared in the the Sarasota Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer.

 

author

Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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