Unprecedented growth is reshaping the Sarasota region, bringing more people, more development, more challenges—and of course, more opportunities!
It’s been dubbed “the billion-dollar boom”—“although it’s well exceeded that amount by now,” says Sarasota city manager Tom Barwin. Since 2015, the city has approved plans for 1,700 apartments, 1,400 condominiums and 1,000 hotel rooms. Those projects and ones to come are expected to increase the city’s population of about 55,000 people by nearly 20 percent—around 11,000 more people—over the next 12 years, and that does not account for the growing number of visitors and workers who now push the city’s daily population to 100,000 or more.
What is striking about the growth is its suddenness. Over the past 40 years, as much as long-timers might say that Sarasota changed, the city barely grew. While the county population more than doubled since 1977, swelling from 172,404 to 379,448, the city numbered 51,023 in 1977 and 54,641 in 2017. That puts its four-decade growth rate at 6.8 percent in a state where population soared by 172 percent over the same time frame.
But now Sarasota is having its moment "in the sun" so to speak. The growth spurt is partially because of qualities on which the city has long prided itself: the beaches and weather, of course, and an arts and culture scene—an orchestra, ballet, opera, museums, theaters and other jewels—that cities many times Sarasota’s size might envy. But other factors are also putting Sarasota on the map, including three thriving colleges and a burgeoning high-tech business climate that’s attracting entrepreneurs and other young professionals. And while home prices in Sarasota are rising, the median listing in the city at the end of 2017 of $334,900 was around $80,000 less than in its glitzy neighbor, Naples.
Like the rest of Florida, Sarasota has been defined by cycles of real estate booms and busts. From 2007 to 2010, during the depths of the Great Recession, the city actually lost 3,700 residents. But demographers and other experts say the current surge of growth looks sustainable, if not inevitable, if for no other reason than the 10,000 baby boomers who are retiring every day, many of them relocating to warmer climates. The recent changes to the federal tax law are also likely to spur migration to Florida. Starting next year, taxpayers can deduct no more than $10,000 from state and local income, sales and property taxes, which could significantly boost taxes for residents in high-tax states such as New York and California, and make Florida, which has lower property taxes and no state income tax, more appealing, and to top that off, U.S. News and World Report ranks Sarasota the best place in America to retire.
If you are standing on the rooftop of the Westin Hotel in Sarasota, you will only see a small sample of the growth in Sarasota. What you cannot see from such heights is even more transformative. To the northeast, the University Parkway corridor anchored by University Town Center Mall in less than a decade has become the hub for retail growth in the region. Farther north, in the unincorporated community of Parrish, orange groves and cattle farms are turning into subdivisions and the population is expected to swell from 20,000 in 2016 to nearly 50,000 by 2030.
In less than 20 years, miles of crop rows, sod farms and shell mining pits east of I-75 have transformed into Lakewood Ranch, with more than 30,000 residents and 10 million square feet of business development. Lakewood Ranch ranked as the third fastest-growing master-planned community in the United States last year.
To the south, the growth has been just as explosive. The city of North Port, which at 104 square miles is the seventh-largest city by land mass in Florida, has supplanted Bradenton and Sarasota as the most populous city in the region, with 67,000 residents. Growing at between 2 percent to 3 percent a year, North Port is expected to double in population over the next 20 years. South County has its own Lakewood Ranch, the West Villages master-planned community, at River Road and U.S. 41. The West Villages has attracted the $130 million Atlanta Braves spring training complex, a burgeoning State College of Florida campus and other amenities. The West Villages last year ranked fourth nationally in growth among master-planned communities, just behind Lakewood Ranch.
“We’ve become the new center of South County,” says Marty Black, the West Villages’ general manager. “You’re talking a pretty dramatic shift. By 2040, the West Villages will be three times the size of Venice, Florida.”
Growth like that is an economic boon, creating new jobs and spending that benefit everyone from construction and restaurant workers to furniture retailers, tourist attractions and bankers. But explosive growth also strains infrastructure and natural resources and stresses residents, who see the small-town city they love changing before their eyes. For the last three years, in an annual survey conducted by the county, Sarasota residents have ranked population growth and new development as far and away their No. 1 concern.
If you are looking for a case study about how Sarasota is responding to the opportunities and challenges that come with transformational growth, set your sights on 42 acres of bayfront property from Boulevard of the Arts to Payne Terminal. It’s one of the largest tracts of public-owned waterfront land poised for redevelopment in the United States. “The Bay” project, as the redevelopment is called, will be unveiled by the end of 2018 and could involve razing the iconic Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and other buildings and creating a new public space that will define the city for generations.
For Raymmar Tirado, 35, the founder of Sarasota Underground, an advocacy group for young professionals, The Bay project is “the benchmark” that will show whether Sarasota is willing to embrace the bold ideas necessary to make the city a beacon that shines for more people than just retirees.
“It can’t become just another Marina Jack, a playground for the wealthy,” says Tirado, who owns a software/media development company. “I’d like to see a world-class facility, with an outdoor amphitheater where you can have big music festivals, as well as some retail components. The main thing is that it needs to be built and accessible to our whole community, not just for people from the Ritz-Carlton and the other high-rises that border the area.”
Downtown Laurel Park: Looking for history combined with walkability? Check out Laurel Park in downtown Sarasota. In 2008, this neighborhood was designated a National Register of Historic Places District. The neighborhood is filled with single-family homes, duplexes and small apartment buildings, with many dating back to the 1920s, in styles such as bungalow, Mission revival, Colonial revival and Mediterranean revival. If a neighborhood filled with historic homes, brick-lined streets and trees dripping with Spanish moss isn’t enough, it’s within a stone’s throw of downtown shops, restaurants and entertainment. Residents run the spectrum from professionals to artists, and young families to retirees, not to mention plenty of pets.
North Gillespie Park: While it may not be for everyone, Gillespie Park is a neighborhood on the rise. Renovated 1920s bungalows, ranch-style homes from the 1950s and 1960s, small apartment buildings and a smattering of new construction make the neighborhood just north of downtown an interesting mix. Named in honor of Sarasota’s first mayor, John Gillespie, the neighborhood’s centerpiece is a sprawling park of the same name, boasting a lake with a refreshing fountain. The neighborhood has a diverse population base, bringing together renters and property owners. It’s also a quick walk to the shops of Main Street.
East of the Trail Lakewood Ranch: This sprawling planned community east of Interstate 75 on the Sarasota-Manatee county line offers something for everyone, from townhouses to million-dollar-plus estate homes. You’ll find everyone from young families to empty-nesters living in the seven villages that make up Lakewood Ranch. You’ll also find recreation ranging from playgrounds to pools to polo, with half of the 8,500-acre community set aside for open space and recreation areas, including miles of hiking trails. Several village centers have been established, so there are plenty of shopping and dining opportunities close to home. Lakewood Ranch also has the distinction of being a green community, and since 2005, new construction is required to follow Florida Green Building Coalition standards.
West of the Trail Indian Beach Sapphire Shores: This bayfront neighborhood in the shadow of the historic Ringling estate is filled with historic homes dating to the 1920s, along with modern mansions and more moderately priced homes. Because of its location near New College of Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design, the neighborhood draws wealthy professionals and families as well as professors and college students. With its location along Sarasota Bay, neighbors often gather at the Sapphire Shores and Indian Beach parks to watch the sunset.
Island Siesta Key: If you’re looking for that laid-back, beach vibe, take a look at Siesta Key, which has consistently won accolades for its sparkling sand. Sure there are the obligatory condominiums and manicured subdivisions, but the south tip of the key, in the Turtle Beach area, swims in tropical foliage, giving it the feeling of an old-time Florida resort. The north end of the key has Siesta Village, a compact downtown with a number of beachy restaurants serving up fresh seafood, cold beers and beach music. While Siesta Key’s population runs the gamut, be prepared for an influx of tourists and snowbirds during the winter season.