Why are so many separate groups competing to promote downtown Sarasota?

Published Aug. 28, 2009

Sarasota loves it some groups.

The Downtown Partnership of Sarasota formed 30 years ago as a merchant association whose mission was to “be the voice of downtown.” It must not have been loud enough, because the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce decided that it needed to create The Coalition of Business Associations (CBA), The Economic Development Corporation (EDC), The City Alliance of Sarasota and the Sarasota Tomorrow Action Council in 2008. The city felt the need for a Community Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board (CRAAB) and a Downtown Improvement District (DID), created last November. Then, of course, there’s the Downtown Sarasota Merchants Alliance, which consists of the Burns Square Merchants Association, the Palm Avenue Merchants Association and theDowntown Merchants Association.

If you’re confused about which does what and who works where, you’re not alone. “We have so many groups downtown we can’t see straight,” says Andrea Rankin, owner of Jake’s Downtown and former president of the Downtown Merchants Association.

All of these organizations are focused on roughly the same goal: bringing customers to downtown. The scarcity of business has recently caused a string of downtown shops to fall. So, a handful of concerned citizens have stepped up to save downtown by forming, in true Sarasota fashion, two separate support groups.

The I Believe in Downtown (ibelieveindowntown.com) campaign is a project that SRQ Media Group has been working on since June; the I Love Downtown Sarasota campaign (ilovedowntownsrq.com), devised by This Week in Sarasota andThe Hub, was more spur-of-the-moment. Both went live the same day in an effort to coincide with the hastily planned Save Our Shops rally at the Aug. 22 Downtown Farmer’s Market, itself a reaction to the closing of Sarasota News & Books.

“It was a fluke,” says Wendy Getchell, pictured at top, and both the owner of Lotus and the current president of the Downtown Merchants Association. “Everybody was looking at the bookstore and just wanted to do something. It’s one of those places that you never thought it could happen to them.” Matt Orr, founder of This Week in Sarasota and the “I Love” campaign, agrees: “We didn’t know when we built the site and designed the flyers what was going on. I think that we might even have two different missions. I don’t know what they’re doing.”

Each of the campaigns has its own ideas for spreading awareness to shoppers about buying local. The “I Believe” campaign encourages residents to take part in the nationwide 3/50 Project, in which people name the three stores they couldn’t live without and pledge to spend $50 per month at each of them.

Orr’s approach with the “I Love” campaign involves tangible activities such as a photo contest with captions where citizens write why they love downtown. “Our plan is to engage the city,” he says, “open it up for as many people that can participate – media, merchants, shoppers, to let us know what they love about downtown.”

“All those campaigns are going to help bring awareness and really that’s the first step,” says Getchell. “We need to make people think about where they’re spending their money. Everybody’s heart is in the right place.” But Rankin believes unity is important: “I think that if they can get together for a solid message and get each merchant involved with their own customers [they can] educate people that a higher percentage of what you spend locally stays in the community… but if they had more cohesiveness it would be better.”

Fortunately, at least some downtown groups may see some harmony in the near future. “We are actually working towards forming a new organization right now along with several of the other organizations in town,” says Getchell. The soon-to-be-formed Downtown Association of Sarasota will merge the Downtown Merchants Association, Palm Merchants Association, Downtown Partnership and other community groups to get everyone on the same page. “This would be saying, ‘Let’s throw all those out and let’s start over fresh with something that’s more synergistic.’ It’ll be a stronger organization, have more clout with the city, look after more of a diverse sector of the community. It will just help everyone more.”

As for the two campaigns trying to save downtown, they’re happy to coexist and even collaborate, but have no plans to join in unity. Given Sarasota’s penchant for forming organizations, that’s not much of a surprise.


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