Sarasota considers commercial district facelift

Sarasota, Florida -- Take a walk down Main Street in downtown Sarasota some shoppers compare it to stepping into a time machine.

"You've got some new relevant up and coming stores with old," says one shopper.

"Many of the storefronts today are out of date 25, 30 years," says Robert Gibbs, a retail market analyst hired by the City of Sarasota.

Gibbs studied Sarasota's 4 commercial districts including downtown Sarasota, St. Armand's Circle, the Rosemary District and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. corridor. "Many look tired it's time for an update," Gibbs told a room filled with retailers and developers at City Hall on Monday morning. He compares the look to the '70s and '80s.

"I think he was dead on with what he said," says Eileen Hampshire owner of Art to Walk On located on Palm Avenue off Main Street. "The ones that are tired looking you don't want to go in it doesn't encourage you to spend your money."

The study's report comes three months before the Mall at University Town Center opens at University Parkway and Interstate 75 with nearly 900,000 square feet of retail space and restaurants. Gibbs say the new mall will impact small businesses for up to three quarters. He says to compete, store owners need to update their storefronts to match Taubman, the No. 1 retail developer in the country responsible for UTC.

Gibbs says Sarasota's commercial districts should use Winter Park in Orlando, Third Street in Naples and Worth Avenue in Palm Beach as models. He recommends store owners need to replace plastic awnings with canvas ones, update the strip mall signage and extend business hours.

"Last year 75 percent of the sales occurred after 5 p.m. at night," Gibbs said.

Trying to find a parking space downtown can be difficult, another issue addressed in the presentation. Gibbs says more parking is needed and he even recommends bringing back parking meters. "Have to come up with a parking management system (that) frees parking space in front of the stores," he said.

With these changes in place, Gibbs says there's money to be made in Sarasota. "You have strong demographics. People with high income with a lot disposable money and a lot of tourists: 900,000."

Gibbs sees demand for an additional retail space: 300,000 square feet of retail space by 2019 that would generate another $90 million in sales. Gibbs believes the area can sustain another regional mall like UTC, which opens in October.

According to Gibbs' analysis, the demand for extra retail space breaks down like this: 119,000 square feet in downtown, 80,000 square feet in St. Armand's Circle, 63,000 square feet in the Rosemary District and another 42,000 square feet in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. corridor.

Gibbs sees the majority of the retail space going to restaurants.

"I think Sarasota should be equal if not higher quality to Naples, Winter Park or Worth Avenue," Gibbs says.

Gibbs will present his findings to City Commissioners Monday night. He will recommend the city set new design standards for storefronts, establish a program to help business owners update their stores, create a business recruitment program and consider adding parking meters to the immediate Main Street area.


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