I recall vividly the glistening hot July day in 2003 when we arrived in Sarasota, Florida. Driving in our pint-size rented car and clutching our larval aspirations, we rounded the corner along Bayfront Drive to see the magnificent sailboats and fishing vessels hugged to the docks of the pristine marina.
We observed unhurried people meandering on the path that skirted the water’s edge of Island Park. The afternoon sun hung over the unruffled, bright blue bay bringing about delightful imageries of tropical life that tasted as sweet as the fruit smoothies we were sipping.
After an eager visit to Sarasota’s city hall for a copy of the elaborate Downtown Revitalization Plan, and countless conversations with anyone willing to expound on the recognizable momentum building in the paradise community, hardly any persuading was needed to convince us that this charming place was to become our home.
We were in love with the idea of building our dream home in Laurel Park, a quaint neighborhood along side the art-inspired Towles Court. We were in love with the idea of opening a wellness store on Main Street to coincide with the grand opening of Whole Foods. And we were in love with the idea of becoming a part of the excitement, joining the vision, which others had created, for a dynamic, energy-filled, prosperous downtown Sarasota. What could be better than to build a house, open a business, and start a family in a prized Gulf Coast address.
Looking back now, I realize that we were simply in love with ideas and images; and, as it is with most affairs of the heart, reality was no where in sight.
The first reality was back to back, record breaking, extreme hurricane seasons which sent subcontractors scampering to zip codes that had been torn to pieces by embodiments of destruction that were given innocent names such as Charley and Ivan. The initial nine month schedule for building the dream home extended to eighteen months, the last four involving numerous poisonous exchanges and irate phone calls, which invariably ended with insincere claims and considerable exasperation.
The problems that arose from laying tile and picking out window treatments were beyond comprehension, and gave us our first lesson ‘in love’- don’t assume a marriage can withstand misplaced blueprints, debates on bone vs. white colored grout, umpteen bank draws, indecipherable punchlists, construction delays with more excuses than offered up by a juvenile in traffic court, and mysteriously missing permits.
The second reality wrote itself into our newlywed journal when we inked a lease and took possession of an empty storefront on Main Street. With tremendous anticipation and overflowing passion, we opened our fledgling business and introduced Sarasota to a paragon of health and fitness.
And while we were brimming with pride to bring brand-name fitness equipment and a myriad of premier products to the health-conscious consumer of Sarasota, we soon found ourselves staring at the pages of our second lesson ‘in love’- don’t delve into a business without first learning about the market… and its true interest, or lack thereof, in spin bikes and elliptical trainers.
As it turned out, Whole Foods was over a year away from completion and, to add to our misery, the City decided to close down thru-traffic for our block of Main Street while improvements were made for the new bus terminal. There we sat, mostly alone, in our freshly painted, nicely decorated little wellness center, watching our investment dwindle and our enthusiasm expire along with cases of multi vitamins and protein shakes.
By early 2005, the business was closed and the marriage was over. He departed overseas to chase less arduous dreams. There I stood, on the porch of my new downtown Sarasota home, sobered by the realities that had just stripped me of my exuberance and suffocated my once impassioned heart.
While I began the arduous after-party clean up, the real estate market was still drinking two-for-one cocktails in a happy hour that had investors drunk with speculation and residents intoxicated with expectations of huge financial gains in their home’s equity.
They collectively missed the midnight toll, when the princess hails a cab, and the fairy tale gives way to the harsh actualities of pragmatic life.
In the following two years, I gave every ounce of my being to not just living in Sarasota, but to thriving in it. I adopted two dogs, made friends, planted a garden, tended to my oversized house, and endeavored another business. I learned to appreciate summer time with its sizzling temperatures and sporadic afternoon deluges of wetness. I got used to wearing shorts while putting up holiday decorations. Come hurricane season, I witnessed the mass exodus of most residents living in the numerous planned residential communities, distinguished by tailored lawns, faux waterfall entrances, and congenial attitude to those living outside the guard-protected gates.
By 2007, the economy soured and the real estate market tanked. The flock of snow birds, who annually return when meteorologists first warn of frost in the northern tier states, chose to stay home. Tourists made only brief visits as though the City had a contagious flu which could be contracted if lounging at the pool too long.
Something about downtown felt less hopeful, and less convinced of its tomorrow. There was, as I remember, a distinct moment of change, when attitudes, as well as appraised values of homes, became surly. Downtown did not deliver the promise of high times and even higher profits.
Instead, the City welcomed outside developers and investors as favored suitors to their only unmarried daughter. Residents felt secondary. Business owners felt slighted. Caution was ignored and concerns were disregarded.
As fast as the fury and fantasy came, reality staged a comeback which no one bothered to forecast. The For Sale and For Rent signs started to pop up, and eventually blanketed the area like undeterred crab grass.
The money machines moved on and the speculators left behind only tattered remains of unsigned contracts. The romance of living in downtown Sarasota was, as with many reckless love stories, momentarily titillating and all-consuming, and then void of substance and long term viability.
Like many others, I let go of the dream. My time for moving on had arrived. I lost my faith in the City and its vision. I was put off by the extreme divide, worsening by the day, between the wealthy and those trying to survive on meager hourly wages. Middle class became nearly extinct, which is shameful. And while there may very well be a strategic plan to turn around the regrettable trends which create a great deal of worry and stress among residents and business owners, I simply no longer possessed the optimism needed to stay.
I left Sarasota a changed woman and wiser for the experiences had there. I left Sarasota disappointed in the City’s blindness to many meaningful opportunities presented and then lost. Incredibly gifted residents, creative artists, and brilliant business owners departed Sarasota for no other reason than a starving soul and near empty bank account. And while all of those who have moved away will most certainly build new dreams and seek new fortunes, the City is without the privilege of celebrating promises fulfilled. Unfortunately, what’s left is a legacy of let down.
All that truly matters now is how Sarasota wants history to read the legacy it creates for tomorrow.
A dream forgotten is sad. But a dream precluded is so much more than sad. It’s disgraceful. My hope for Sarasota is that it rethinks the obvious efforts to become the next Beverly Hills of the Gulf Coast. Florida has plenty of well-known communities that comfortably cater to the rich and ultra rich. There needs to be more than just plastic surgeons, attorneys, bankers, and real estate heavy weights filling the pages of Sarasota magazines. There needs to be more to Sarasota than elite social events, galas disguised as fundraisers, swank shops, and lofty galleries patroned by only the affluent.
The City needs heart. A cohesive vision. It needs to live the dream of those who call it home. In my opinion, Sarasota needs to sit back down with genuine intent to redefine its priorities and reassess its agenda. No good can come from further discounting the value of a middle class and dismissing the need for economic support.
I bid farewell to Sarasota with deep love and enduring emotions for the City that, in a moment in time, captured my imagination and set my spirit free. I will watch from afar to see if Sarasota discovers its true identity, made up of not just elegant waterfront homes and coifed cafes, but rich in artistic flair, diverse cultural expressions, unfeigned values, and shared prosperity.
Delivering something significant tomorrow requires committing to something better today.