The Premier Lifestyle Magazine of Florida's Black Communities
The term “Economic Development” seems to embody vastly differing definitions dependent upon the people you speak with and the target environment in which the term is being applied to. To most, it would be best defined as a process or processes that serve to improve the economic viability of a particular demographic within a given geographic location. By this definition, the Newtown – North Sarasota Redevelopment Office (NRO), located on 1782 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, should be focused on the urgent mission of determining the needs of the existing businesses along the corridor and creating plans and paths to solutions. Yet it doesn’t and it hasn’t. The most often offered “remedy” is storefront improvements that don’t go much further than refreshed paintwork, awnings and business facades.
Quite possibly, the question was asked ” Do you feel that your business would do better if the building was painted a different color?” To which, (one can only assume) the majority of business owners obviously said “YES!”
In what seems to be a continuation of a long-range takeover plan, the city of Sarasota has recruited Lorna Alston from Tampa, to offer pacifist suggestions and aesthetic improvements that offer little to correct the existing situation. Through the implementation of the CRA, Community Re-investment Act, funds are being made available to remove the financial challenge that looms over most businesses in their struggling conditions. This is a genuinely mixed blessing. Having the right tools but using them improperly, still won’t fix the problem. Trying to create a substantial amount of income from a business space that is too small to allow a decent volume of customer flowthrough is a self-defeating prophecy. You’re out of business before you’ve even started! Due to out-dated zoning restrictions (many of which only apply to the Newtown area?), the option of outdoor patronage or second-story lobbies are non-existent. Yet a number of businesses along Main Street offer such amenities and more (how easy is it to enjoy a beer or glass of wine along the venue and not worry about conflicts with the police?!)
Businesses in the Newtown area are typically strapped with exposure issues that can be addressed through improved marketing efforts. Marketing and promotions typically consume the majority of the available operating capital but, if applied properly, they also yield the best return on the investment through increased traffic and higher revenues. But, it’s those same investment dollars that are so hard to come by because of the minimal customer flow. This creates a vicious downward spiral that leads to a slow, and financially painful, closing of the business. So, why aren’t situation analyses being conducted to begin this process? Shouldn’t these types of conversations be held between the NRO and the businesses in question?
If the focus is to enable existing business-owners to retain ownership and move their business into positive operations, then the answer would be yes. If, however, the focus is to continue with a long-term plan of eventually shifting property ownership back to the city…well, that’s a different, near silent dialogue all together.
Let’s consider the fact that a majority of the available property in Sarasota, at least that which is closest to the waterline, has already been purchased. The value of most of these properties begins at the low- to mid- $250K mark. Even as our economy struggles back to its feet and the property values begin their slow but steady rise back to traditional levels, the ability to control a piece of property is still a major focus among investors. And there are definitely investors that are ready, willing and able to purchase properties along the MLK Corridor. If the current businesses are allowed to devalue to the point of failure and the city regains ownership and usage of those properties, they will be sold to the highest bidder. The city of Sarasota would then benefit from the artificially inflated difference as another black-owned business is allowed to disappear.
A much better conversation about Economic Development would focus on the empowerment of entrepreneurs being nurtured and groomed to that calling through business classes that offered practical applications for the proper operation of a business venture. Or perhaps the improved development of the existing properties to support the growth of the community in both business and residential aspects?
As illustrated in this design study to the left, the MLK Corridor holds the potential to redefine the very profile of the Newtown community! Upscale business traffic and an expanded cross-section of patrons can positively influence, the city, county and even the state!
Just envision where we could be, should be or would be…
13 participants of the Community Entrepreneur Opportunity class, graduated and were sent out into the business “woods” relatively un-escorted. Shortly thereafter, Janie’s Gardens announced its grand opening with much fanfare and promotion. As a mixed-use property, the ability for a new business to launch there was primed by the flexibility of creating a space based on the needs of the business that was also affordable. Why weren’t these two events connected so that graduates had a place to begin??? Was it due to the estimated $50k build-out requirement to convert the open-space layout of Janie’s Gardens into usable square footage? Hmmm!
To date, Janie’s Garden sits relatively abandoned as far as business tenants are concerned (they’ve secured one tenant since the grand opening!) And of the 13 graduates that should be residents in Janie’s Garden, only two are known to be conducting business at all with one being uncertain as to her survival potential! Economic Development? Maybe in the Rosemary District…maybe in the Burns Court area…maybe along the North Trail…obviously not in Newtown.
To her credit, Lorna Alston is extremely proud of her office’s ability to secure jobs for the Booker High School campus renovations, the construction of the new Wal Mart at Myrtle and North Tamiami Trail and those involved in the widening project on Washington Blvd. aka 301. These positions were secured with the support and combined efforts of the Suncoast Workforce so, it would seem as though her greatest achievement has been to convert the Newtown – North Sarasota Redevelopment Office into the Newtown branch of the Suncoast Workforce!
Once these construction-related projects are completed, the builders and developers may extend employment opportunities to some of the workers although most of them will move on to other projects in other cities and leave these laborers and equipment operators right where they found them! This will have done nothing towards the creation of businesses within the Newtown community. Congratulations!
As we continue to address the topic of deleting the black experience in Sarasota, and with Janie’s Garden being a recent addition to the Newtown landscape, let’s take a moment to learn more about Janie Poe. An early educator in Sarasota, responsible for producing students that have gone on to their own individual levels of greatness, how could her name be so easily removed from the fabric of Newtown’s history?
Wednesday we’ll learn more about the history and accomplishments of Ms. Janie Poe!
Read Erasing Newtown (Part 1 of 3) here!