When I graduated high school, I told myself I wouldn’t move back to Sarasota.
There was nothing to do for an 18-year-old except to go to the beach, watch movies at the Hollywood 20 or go bowling. It was boring.
But I got a job with the Herald-Tribune right out of college and moved back within weeks of graduation. I was pleasantly surprised to find a handful of bars downtown to complement local haunts in Gulf Gate and Siesta Key. Maybe the city was slowly starting to get better, I thought at the time.
I was wrong.
Time after time, local governments in Sarasota County have had the chance to attract and keep young workers here. And time after time, they failed.
A perfect example was the recent saga of Taco Bus, which the city of Sarasota scared away because the restaurant wanted to have a to-go window with sidewalk access. The horror.
City Commissioner Susan Chapman threw a conniption because Cask & Ale wanted to move into the vacated Taco Bus site. She worried that many establishments within blocks of the location already had liquor licenses. That might be true, but when’s the last time a 20- or 30-something went to Barnacle Bills or the Hyde Street Steakhouse or Duvall’s Seafood for a cocktail or a night out? And it’s not like Cask & Ale is another Smokin’ Joe’s – it’s a high-end cocktail-and-tapas joint much more similar to State Street than Ivory.
Small-business owners who want to open businesses that cater to young folks in the downtown urban core often give up, throwing their hands up in frustration after simple construction requests are stopped cold by the powerful Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association (read: A bunch of old, rich, white people who only want the opera and ritzy restaurants that charge $40 for a lamb chop the size of a toddler’s hand to be downtown).
Why the hell would people move to a downtown, urban core if they’re allergic to any noise louder than a sneeze? Were the condos on Longboat and Lido Keys not swanky enough for them? Do their well-insulated, multimillion-dollar walls not keep out the hum of traffic and occasional sound of mirth? Are they incapable of turning off their hearing aids? Do they care that their selfish interest in keeping downtown as quiet as possible is ruining the city’s ability to attract and retain young talent?
The answer to the last question is a resounding no.
And their interest in keeping downtown a quiet mecca for the senile has bled over to the city’s planning board and commission.
But aren’t downtown areas supposed to be the heartbeat of a city, economically and culturally and entertainment-wise?
As a result of the old-and-impossibly-rich lobby, the city has done its best to make sure it does not become a place where young people want to come. They’re threatening to shut down the Harvey Milk Festival, my all-time favorite Sarasota event that once actually gave me hope that the city cared about younger folks. They’re working to make sure other future, potential downtown events like Thunder by the Bay and the Harvey Milk Festival never come to fruition.
It’s as sad as it is frustrating. And it’s really, really frustrating.
I’m frustrated that every time I go downtown on a Friday night, it’s a tour of the same four bars. I’m frustrated that I have to travel between 45 minutes and an hour to see live music past 8 p.m. in a bar that isn’t filled with cigarette smoke (sorry, Gator Club). I’m frustrated and sad to see droves of my friends moving away because Sarasota has grown too expensive and too tired.
I’m joining many others in packing up and moving out. I’ll be living more than 12 hours away in Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth-largest city. Why was I interested in moving to Houston, the one place that’s actually hotter and more humid than Florida, sans the nice beaches? Several reasons:
- There are young people there, like, a LOT of young people (my Tinder game is going to be off the chain).
- There are a bunch of cool neighborhoods packed with fun restaurants, coffee shops, vintage stores and bars (examples: the Heights, Montrose, Midtown, Upper Kirby, West University, Galleria, Rice, the Museum District, Rice Military, etc.).
- It’s diverse (the most diverse city in the country, actually).
- There’s a lot to do other than drink and go to the beach (i.e. rock-climbing gyms, water parks, delicious but cheap ethnic food from across the globe, a world-class museum district, bike trails throughout the city, multiple sports teams, zoos, an outdoor theater, a multitude of live-music venues, theme parks, etc.)
- The city isn’t controlled by a bunch of old people who are allergic to youth and fun (though I’m sure it’s controlled by good ole’ boys and the like).
- They have a bunch of fun events throughout the city.
- There’s a lively downtown with a great live-music scene.
- It costs MUCH LESS to live there but the wages are way better there than they are in Southwest Florida.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Sarasota. I was born and raised here. My entire family is here. This is where I learned to surf and skimboard and run away from gators. It’s where I had my first kiss and where I had my first break up.
But I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t give my 20s to a place that doesn’t want me or other people my age.
Maybe one day the local governments will realize that it’s pushing young folks like me out of the area. Maybe one day they’ll make changes so young people can afford housing here. Maybe one day they’ll realize downtown should be an entertainment district and stop treating it like a nursing home.
But until then, 20- and 30-somethings will continue to leave. Even though some of us would like to stay, it’s evident we’re not wanted here.