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Signs of life.

Sarasota has just spent $40 million sprucing up its downtown, and early indicators are the investment may already be paying off.

The City of Sarasota has gambled $40 million of the taxpayers' money over the last six years on revitalizing downtown. They didn't do it just for fun. Downtown was sick in the pocketbook and major changes were prescribed. Unfortunately, sometimes the patient dies anyway.

But sometimes the expensive medicine can work miracles. Two big new downtown developments -- a movie theater that's already underway and an upscale mall that's only under negotiation -- hint that this may be the case in Sarasota.

Even though one major redevelopment project, the new Bayfront Park, has been dogged by controversy, the plans for the theater and the mall and several other indicators seem to suggest that a somewhat improved business and retail climate has indeed emerged from the Herculean effort by City Hall. That effort includes two new parks; some serious road building; a storefront assistance program; two-way traffic on Main Street; an extensive land-banking program on downtown's north side; the construction of the Lemon Avenue Mall; and, soon to be completed, a revision of downtown traffic patterns implemented by extending Ringling Boulevard and Main Street out to Bayfront Drive. Also underway, an incipient public art program, and anti-flooding measures for Gulf Stream Avenue and, oh yes, extensive renovations to Bayfront Park.

The real test of how well it's all working will be whether it brings more people with money to spend downtown. Marketing, retail marketing of goods, services and entertainment, is still the major reason for having a downtown in the first place. After all, 'tis money makes the mare go, as an old Scots expression has it, and a city can do no great wrong if it bends its efforts toward creating the best retail environment possible. Not only does this improve the quality of life for citizens and merchants, it also creates a stronger tax base--a vital necessity for a local government that spends 70 percent of its revenue for public safety. Without a strong tax base, cities fail.

And is it working? Downtown stores have an almost 100 percent occupancy rate these days, up from about 70 percent five years ago; and the atmosphere at City Hall is one of cautious, but excited optimism, buoyed by signs of an upturn in the national economy. David Sollenberger, Sarasota's city manager, says, "I am very confident about downtown. I've seen a lot of new business, particularly restaurants and galleries, and it really is associated with the investment that the city has made. The downtown core is in a strong position now; a lot of public amenities have inspired investor confidence."

The major investor that Sollenberger probably has in mind is the Courtelis Company of Miami, which is eyeing 32 acres on the northeast corner of Fruitville and U.S. 41 for a high-end specialty shopping mall. Courtelis is contemplating a 300,000-square-foot mall with about 75 specialty shops and restaurants and anchor stores on the level of Saks Fifth Avenue. "The wealth is there," says Doug Pitts of Courtelis, citing demographic studies propelled by 1990 census data.

How does a company like Courtelis decide on projects like this? "There are really two or three ingredients," says Pitts. "Back-up demographics, then the opportunities, site opportunities and so on, that are available, and the competition. There has to be a need. You can have a place that seems right, but if it already has adequate specialty retail it doesn't make sense to do anything...We feel that the Sarasota market is under-retailed from a high-end specialty point of view."

But demographics and market studies, no matter how compelling, don't always result in buildings. Harry Adley, a Sarasota planner and market study consultant, notes, "In the 30 years I've been doing market studies, I've developed a reserve of cynicism. I read the numbers, I do the proper things, but I then pull back and make value judgments. That comes down to faith in the individual developer, and that gets personal very quickly. Look at it this way--if a major developer who has put these deals together before has a strong retail following, they will follow blindly until he makes a mistake, because they don't want to lose out."

If Courtelis makes a mistake, it won't be from lack of experience. The company started out building strip shopping centers, but in 1980 they built the Falls Shopping Center in Kendall, Florida, the first of what has become Courtelis' signature inward-facing outdoor malls. Usually constructed around a courtyard featuring a "waterscape," they are outdoor malls in that pedestrian traffic is guided around the edge of the courtyard. Their recently completed Waterside Shops in Pelican Bay in Naples follows a similar plan. "We're still thinking along the lines of what we did in Naples," says Pitts.

The Sarasota site, which was assembled a few years ago for a shopping center proposed by Mission Harbour Realty (which has since entered into bankruptcy) has both assets and drawbacks. Perched at the city's main gateway on U.S. 41 and Fruitville, right between the airport, the Ringling Museum and the Asolo Theater at one end and the turnoff to Lido, Bird, St. Armand's and Longboat Key at the other, it certainly has a commanding location. And the mall would be big enough to visually dominate the now run-down area, with a little help from the new library the county plans to build close by and the earnestly hoped-for renovations at John Ringling Towers. They'd better do something about that old gas station across the way, though.

Still, large malls are not usually built near downtown areas. Two reasons: parking and control of the environment. Sarasota's horse-and-buggy downtown has 1,911 free public parking spaces; Sarasota Square Mall has 6,200. The nation's downtowns, mostly planned and built in the 19th century when the main modes of transport were rails and horses, have reached a rough compromise with the car, but have never achieved true peace with it. Large cities with still viable urban cores--Boston, New York, Montreal, San Francisco -- get around the problem with extensive rapid transit systems, not one of which pays for itself. For this project, however, parking should not be a problem, since the site offers ample room for cars.

But control of the environment could be a problem. Begging, drug traffic, muggings, purse-snatchings, armed robbery and worse, which have all increased in the last few decades, dampen trade; but these are only the most obvious symptoms of lack of control. Shoppers appreciate the physical safety that malls seem to guarantee, but they are also getting used to other mall amenities, like cleanliness, heat and air conditioning, the cheek-by-jowl convenience of many kinds of shops, the food courts and the rest rooms. Aberrant behavior looks immediately out of place in such a controlled environment.

Looked at this way, the Courtelis location has several problems. Shopping malls like to have as much access around their perimeter as possible. The Courtelis project would have good access from U.S. 41 and Fruitville, but what about the other sides? The areas north and south of the proposed site are generally acknowledged to be high in crime. Indeed, so is the site itself right now. How will the mall ensure safety for its customers as they enter and leave the premises? How will it maintain the typical sheltered mall environment in that location? Pitts acknowledges the problem. "We are not unconcerned about that," he says. "That is not a positive for the site."

Other problems could stop the project in its tracks. Pitt warns that the acquisition may not be feasible, that financing still has to be secured and that finding anchor tenants is critical. "You only have a following if you have a good site, financing and it's a place the stores want to go." He predicted that the final decision would come sometime this month.

Most city officials wholeheartedly hope this mall will rise. And even if it doesn't, they see Courtelis' very serious interest as a vote of confidence in downtown's future and the investment the city has already made. Local retailers, however, might not view the project so rapturously. How would it affect their business? Will the Main Street and Palm Avenue stores derive any advantage? It seems unlikely. Fruitville Road now presents a four-lane barrier to the center of town. It's doubtful that pedestrians will cross it, especially when they can find all they need at the mall, like millions of other mall shoppers. And would the project help or hurt Sarasota Quay? The Quay does have the advantage of being right across the street, but it's a five-lane street with heavy traffic. And it's a long walk through that parking lot.

What about St. Armands? They have high-priced shops, too, and those upscale customers that the Courtelis Mall is counting on are a major source of business for St. Armands Circle. Has anybody told the Circle merchants about this yet? It would certainly be ironic if Sarasota's carefully laid plans for retail development backfired by attracting the one business that could halt Main Street's fragile recovery in its tracks -- a mega-mall not quite next door.

The other big downtown project, which everybody seems to be happy about, is brewing up near the center of downtown. I'll bet you don't remember when downtown Sarasota last had a movie theater. Well, the old Florida Theatre, located in what is now the Sarasota Opera, closed its doors on the last picture show in 1973. But 20 years later, a new one is on its way. Sarasota's active and outspoken film presenter, Dick Morris of the Sarasota Film Society, is building a 60,000-square-foot, 390-seat, three-screen movie theater right on the edge of Burns Court near Orange and Pineapple. The building, designed by Sarasota architect Frank Folsom Smith, is not quite like the great picture palaces of old, but will be just right for Morris's high-quality filmic vision. You won't see Home Alone IV there -- Morris shows mainly first-run foreign films, and that's not going to change. But for those Sarasotans who like Morris' brand of programming, and there are a great many who do, judging by the 30,000 seats he filled last year, the new theater will be an oasis in the great multi-plex movie desert. And while watching your favorite Merchant Ivory or Peter Greenaway flick, you may be able to enjoy vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry Dixie Cups. Dixie Cups?! Do they still make them?

"I hope so," says Morris, "I'm trying to locate the old Dixie Cup company. Remember how they used to have a movie star on inside of the cover? It would be great if we could have that. I just bought the popcorn machine and the butter dispenser, and we also expect to offer teas, espresso, and maybe some carbonated fruit beverages." This is a man who pays attention to details.

The new theatre, to be called "Film Society," is scheduled to open June 1. For the first week, while Morris "shakes down" his new movie house, there will be cut-rate prices to see Room with a View; Stop Making Sense, the Talking Heads performance documentary; and Mystery of Picasso. Morris is a little irritated about recent attempts to ban X-rated movies in Sarasota and may decide to run Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris while he's at it.

It's hard to see how this project can fail to have a positive impact on its surroundings. It's even possible that upscale moviegoers might move into the nearby Laurel Park neighborhood just to be within walking distance of the Film Society. Let's hope so, because if it really takes off, parking (you remember parking, right?) in the area could be dicey. Morris has made arrangements with several nearby parking lots, which should alleviate the problem somewhat, but, let's see, 390 seats--some couples, some singles--that could mean 200 plus cars on a good night. Could be interesting.

It's too soon to know if our $40 million will turn downtown into a thriving center of commerce. But the Film Society project -- and the Courtelis possibility -- certainly are encouraging indicators.
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Title Annotation:downtown developments in Sarasota, FL
Author:Gigliotti, Davidson
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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