How Sarasota’s dire unemployment numbers are driving our upcoming city elections

Feb. 13, 2009
Rick Farmer

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, a look at Sarasota’s recent economic trends doesn’t paint a pretty picture.

The unemployment rate for Sarasota County in December was 8.1 percent and approached 9 percent last month, higher than the current U.S. rate of 7.6 percent and Florida’s average of 8.1 percent. The shedding of government jobs has dropped the Sarasota Police Department down to 1990 levels and the Post Office plans to make major cuts soon. The Herald-Tribune has cut 40 percent of its work force in three years and countless smaller businesses have been forced to lay off workers or close altogether.

Only two short years ago, Sarasota’s unemployment rate was 3.2 percent, and companies were having trouble finding qualified workers. Not anymore. And that issue is driving next month’s city commission elections. Nine City Commission candidates think they have solutions — we must choose two.

Current city commissioner Ken Shelin — the only official running for reelection (the other open seat belongs to Lou Ann Palmer, who is retiring) — names economic recovery as the most important issue facing the city, and recently initiated an effort to develop a downtown improvement district. He also wants to expedite other road, water, sewer and bridge infrastructure projects that the city has planned. His favorite project on the shovel-ready list is changing the stretch of Fruitville Road from 301 to 41 into a more residential, pedestrian-friendly street with wider sidewalks and more landscaping.

Shelin also wants to get Whitaker Gateway Park rolling. It would involve buying up some of the privately owned bayou north of Newtown and developing it as a recreational and environmental resource. “We can’t do much about the foreclosure rate or credit availability in the banks,” says Shelin, “but we can do certain things like taking vacant foreclosed property, rehabbing it, and putting it back on the market to create jobs in the construction industry and also some economic activity in the real estate market.” Shelin has seen Sarasota’s job loss firsthand. He himself had to make some cuts: A Florida state law requires cities to keep a balanced budget.

Pete Thiesen
Pete Theisen

That same law could pose a problem for Pete Theisen, a retired acupuncturist who refers to himself as the “anti-growth” candidate. Theisen, 64, boasts his plans for a community-wide elevated railway. “The city might not pay for it,” he says. “This is the time of hope and change.” He plans to build the railway with federal money or develop a private partnership with the train company. He believes transportation is the city’s biggest problem, and that new public/private infrastructure would speed along economic recovery. His plan also includes a fleet of people movers to get residents from the neighborhoods to the train or bus stops. He then wants to pursue a car manufacturer, like Toyota, to build a plant east of I-75 which workers could be transported to — via the railway, of course. Theisen also wants to create 1,000 government jobs, including 100 positions for new police officers.

If that plan isn’t forward-thinking enough for you, you might vote for Rick Farmer, the self-described “progressive” candidate. Farmer, 46, is a computer engineer who is taking a play out of the Obama campaign handbook. He is all about unity, transparency and green, sustainable jobs. He wants to post the city’s budget on the web and considers himself a fiscally conservative liberal. His goal is to shape a stronger accord between Sarasota government officials, neighborhood associations and normal citizens, as well as between the city, county and state.

“The future of Sarasota is sustainable jobs, knowledge jobs, to make the city attractive to young people,” Farmer says. “When people graduate from Ringling, we need to make it attractive so they want to stay here. They can’t think of it as a retirement community. That was the old Sarasota; we have to look ahead.” Farmer also believes that it is very important for the commission board to hear input from the community as often as possible and thinks the controversial commission expansion question that will also be on the March 10 ballot — the provision would also create an elected mayor position — is an “assault on the city.” (Shelin is the only candidate who supports the measure.)

Paul Caragiulo, 34, is the youngest of the five Caragiulo brothers, who co-own the restaurant that bears their name. He wants to work with city interests to develop a consensus on what the community wants, holistically, moving forward into the future. He believes people focus on minute details too often instead of looking at the big picture. “I have a young family,” says the “young professional” candidate, “I’m here not to retire but to earn a living and to hopefully live in a very culturally vibrant society, and I think that people like me are underrepresented.”

Caragiulo believes that government has the power to augment economic recovery, but often impedes it instead. “I can’t believe the trouble they gave Ringling over the expansion that they needed, I mean that’s just a no-brainer to me,” says Caragiulo. “I think with the academia there is an opportunity for jobs. Go to Ringling and New College, these people are leaving here to work for companies like animation and things. What can be done to entice these industries to come here? We have locked ourselves into this thing where we are so reliant on hospitality, which is great, but that is reliant on something else — you have to have disposable income for these businesses to survive.”

On the other side of the spectrum is the “years-of-experience” candidate Terry Turner. Although never a public official, 68-year-old Turner has been a senior executive in a number of private companies ranging from a small software development company to Fortune 500 companies. He has also served on numerous corporate and community boards. He spent a number of years teaching financial economics at Berkley before moving to Sarasota in 1997.

Turner believes the city is facing serious problems and the commission needs serious leadership. “I think we need to look beyond the budget and think about what the economy should look like after we get through this crisis,” says Turner. “We need to focus more on sustainable economic activity in what have traditionally been our core strengths: tourism, eco-tourism, health services and the visual and performing arts. Most of the job stimulus is going to have to come out of Washington, but we can do things here like focusing more on hiring locally and contracting locally. We need to be more vigilant about making sure that the terms of contracts are enforced and contractors are hiring locally. We need to develop the mindset that we need to help our citizens.”

Job creation is complicated, politically contentious and absolutely necessary. No matter which of the candidates we end up electing to the City Commission, they better figure out how to create a lot of work. And do it quickly.

We’ll have more on the March 10 City Commission elections — and the four candidates we haven’t had the chance to talk to yet — over the coming weeks, right here on The 941.

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