Ten Reasons why Sarasota is not #1
August 26, 2012
Posted By: Rich Swier Jr.
I recently was sent a link to the recent Money Magazine Top 100 places to live. And of course, I fully expected to open the article, and see the words "Sarasota, Florida" right there in the top 10. We have all the key elements of a great city right? Low cost of living, amazing beaches, weather, amazing arts and culture, and a very charitable community. Well, after clicking "View Next 10" 10 times.... it became obvious to me, that Sarasota, Florida was not in the Top 10... and even more depressing, not even in the Top 100.
We didn't even beat Troy, Michigan (no offense Troyans).
My depression, quickly turned into anger. Not at Money Magazine. Not at Troy, Michigan. But at myself. Shame on me for expecting that we would simply be voted Top 100 because we have nice sand and sunshine. Shame on me, for believing the "hype" that a city can be great because the weather is great. Shame on me for expecting the rubber stamp.
Here are my top ten reasons why Sarasota is no longer #1
(and how we can reclaim our position as one of the top cities to live).
REASON #10 - We don't give a shit about Elections.
I realize this is a blanket statement. Believe me, I know a few people that love Politics. Eat it up like a sugar cookie. I see them at the City Commission meetings almost every time I go. And believe me, those people are dedicated as hell. You don't know pain, until you have sat through a 7 hour City Commission meeting listening to people complain about traffic signals, sterile Turtles and Public Art. But for the most part, this City doesn't care enough to vote. The Voter turnout in City Elections is horrific. Why? Is it Because they don't believe the system works? Or because the Elections are in March? It doesn't matter why. The fact is OUR CITY DOES NOT VOTE. The worst offender is youth. The voice of the 40 and under crowd is almost a rounding-error. That saddens me. If we no longer called it "City Elections" and called it "Complain about Irrelevant Crap Day".... we would have a 86% voter turnout.
REASON #9 - Vagrants have taken over our downtown.
I understand the sensitivity of this debate. Before anyone begins to talk about this issue, they feel like they have to recite the "Homeless vs Vagrants" Political Correctness speech. Believe me, I have heard it more than the latest Justin Bieber song coming from my daughters IPod. To be honest, I think everyone understands the difference, so let's stop using the "we need to be sensitive" excuse, and solve the problem. Our own "ceremonial" Mayor stated in the last meeting that she is afraid to walk downtown, and something must be done. Two years it took our City Commission to acknowledge the problem, and then they told the Police Department "We support you to execute the law of the City". So am I to assume, that the City Commission did NOT support this before? If I knew that vagrants and panhandlers had that much power and influence over our City Commission, I would have grabbed my backpack, grown out my beard, and set up a nice spot next to Ian at Mattison's instead of going to the City Commission meetings.
REASON #8 - We are broke.
Our city is broke. At the last City Commission meeting Commissioner Snyder restated "We are broke" and Commissioner Turner laughed and in response said, "Yep, hahaha, we are broke". Despite the fact that this is a disturbing exchange in a public forum, there is something wrong when the "leadership" thinks it's funny. It reminds me of the scene from the movie Goodfellas, when Joe Pesce's character says with a serious face "What is so f***in' funny? Please, tell me what is so f****in' funny?". Why are we broke? I could walk you through the financials of the city, and look at pensions, lack of budget control and probably 100 other things we could blame. But the bottom line is - the reason we are broke, is because our City Government is broken. We have no leadership. The Commissioners who are responsible for fixing this mess - make it a punch line at a commission meeting. They talk about it, like they are describing the water, while we are all drowning. We are broke. Our commissioners are to blame. They hire the City Managers (three in the past five years), they make the rules, they are responsible. But instead of leading us..... they laugh.
REASON #7 - Lack of investment in Downtown.
If we want a great city, we need to attract great investors. Investors who believe the city is a great place to live, work and play. What is a "great investor"? I am talking about investors who love the city. They don't just love the "deal" or the "price". We don't need investors who are looking to "flip" our city for a profit. We need long-term investors who believe in a new Sarasota. Unfortunately, these "great investors" are frustrated. They are nervous in investing in a city that has no vision. We have created an "anti-growth" mentality that is based on fear. A false fear that is driven by the exception not the rule. If it wasn't for long-term investors who accept the risk of building a city, John Ringling, Burns and Palmer would have never come down to this swamp land and built the amazing city we have today. Believe it or not, there are people in this town that build buildings, build businesses and build a better community, and (...wait for it) are good people who care deeply about the future of this city.
REASON #6 - We Waste Money.
I realize we have already talked about us being broke. But there is a difference between having a "bad year" due to the economy, and going broke because you max out your credit cards buying Shamwow's on the Home Shopping Network at 2am. Unfortunately, our City has been a 2am shopper for too many years. From the Parking Meters to Construction Projects, our City has proven to us it is unable to make good decisions when it comes to our tax dollars. Why? Is it because they don't have all the facts? No. Many times they spend thousands of dollars on consultants. Is it because they hire bad vendors? No. Most of the time they put a project out to bid, and they choose the best vendor for the best price. Then why??? Simple. It's because we have no continuity in our City Government. By the time a project is proposed, debated, approved and funded - it could take 3-5 years. Which means we may have three new commissioners change out from when the project started and when it ended. Or even worse, 3 different city Managers. We don't have a leader who can make a good decision and execute that decision from start to finish. The Parking Meter fiasco (although one of the smallest financial mistakes our city has made) was started with a completely different commission, during an entirely different economy... and then 5 years later, surprise... We yanked them.
REASON #5 - Hidden Agendas.
There are a lot of groups in this town with an agenda. Quite honestly, I am not sure what they have to gain. Power? Money? I guess. But in reality, our city is broke and declining. Our neighborhoods are becoming less safe. Our unemployment has never been higher. Some of these groups are driven by the neighborhood associations. Other groups are funded by big businesses. To me they are all the same (technically, I guess I consider myself one of these groups). They obviously have an agenda, and want to help elect the person they believe will be the best commissioner. I am cool with that. That is American politics. HOWEVER, when these groups operate in the dark, and refuse to follow the rules - that is wrong. A city is expected to have different views, diverse opinions - both conservative and liberal.... but one thing a city should always defend is right vs. wrong. Recently, the Herald Tribune published a story about Commissioner Terry Turner funding a Political Committee called "Citizens for a Better Sarasota" to drive a petition to give more power to our City Manager. This group refuses to disclose their financials (although required by law) and have done multiple actions that could be considered fraudulent. This is wrong. Influence will always be present in politics and government, but when the influence is not disclosed and transparent - then it's just corruption.
REASON #4 - The Myth of "Rich vs. Poor"
It's almost too predictable. Every time there is a debate in our city (especially on Facebook)... it doesn't take long before someone posts "That's because Sarasota Rich People don't like Poor People". It has become the default response anytime an issue or problem is brought up with the city. It's almost like we just don't even try anymore. If someone complains about the weather - the next comment almost certainly will be "That's because the Rich People in the Condos want to rain out the bums on Five Points". It's the classic human reaction to adversity. We all do it. When faced with a challenging problem - instead of thinking about logical solutions and asking questions - we "auto-respond" and think of the worst example and extrapolate it as a blanket statement. When one of the condo owners downtown calls and complains about the noise - our reflex is to shout "Damn Condo owners are assholes". (of course, I am always conflicted because I live in a condo downtown, so I find myself yelling at a mirror). And when one of the vagrants in the park harasses a passer-by we shout "Damn homeless people are attacking everyone". It's easy to over-react, and create a war - Us versus Them. This is how we are programmed now. Instead of solving problems and having intellectual conversation - we just want to start a fight. Rich vs. Poor is our favorite. And it's a myth.
REASON #3 - We talk too much.
We talk a lot. We talk in meetings. We have committees who talk about other committees. We talk about stuff we used to talk about. We are not a city of action. We avoid decisions almost as much as our commission avoids walking thru five points park. I find it funny that we pay to send city and business leaders to other "successful" cities to learn about how they improved their communities. They visit places like Asheville, Chattanooga and come back and say "Man, those guys did amazing things". We love talking about other cities.Yet, we don't take action. You can blame it on the obvious reasons - no leader, no vision, no plan. All good reasons. But I fear even worse. I truly believe that we have come to believe "talking" about something is actually the same as "doing" something. There are organizations that not only chalk up "talk" as action, but also as an actual accomplishment. We talked about having a "diverse economy" - therefore it is true. What's next on the agenda?? Let's talk about it - so we can check it off our list and take credit for the success.
REASON #2 - No Love.
Do you know why people fall in love with a city? Is it because of the round-a-bouts? Or the Parking garage? I wish. If that were the case, we most certainly would have been voted #1. People fall in love with a lifestyle. People fall in love with a community that is cool, easy-going, positive, visionary and committed to making their town awesome. People fall in love with memorable experiences. People fall in love with inspiration. I am sure some people will read this and say "clearly, this guys hates Sarasota". But it's quite the opposite. I fell in love with Sarasota not just because of what it has today - but also the potential of tomorrow. Most people who visit here have an amazing experience. They visit our waterfront, eat at our amazing restaurants and meet new friends from all around the world. I feel many of us have lost this love. And people who are thinking of moving here or staying here, see it. I realize it's frustrating to live in a place that has such divisive political views, a growing apathy for city politics and five generations of people who don't understand each other's perspective. I get it. Trust me. But here's the thing. We live here. Try to look past all the things you hate, and perhaps find some level of hope in something you love. And talk about that - next time someone asks you about our city.
REASON #1: No Leader.
I think by now, it's easy to see why the City of Sarasota is not in the top 100. We have no real leadership. Our system of government (Five City Commissioners) is broken. For those who disagree, I simply ask them - "Name one thing the Commission has done in the past 20 years that you can be proud of". The last great City Commission was in the early 1960's who put a master plan on the table and made it happen. You can thank my good friend Gil Waters and his colleagues for some amazing projects that have helped shape our city for the past 50 years. But guess what. 50 years is too long to wait. We need a Mayor who can build a vision and execute that vision. I understand it's a lot to ask. To change the structure of our City Government is not easy. It will take a majority of our citizens who vote to stand up and say "We want a better City". It will take our City Commission to hand over power. It will take away power from special interest groups. It will put a lot of faith and trust into a new leader.
Trust me, if there was an easier solution to these problems I am all ears. But if you are under the assumption that our City Commission has the capability to save our city - then I hope you are prepared to lose more than our Top 100 ranking, because that is exactly what is going to happen.
Feel free to email me your ideas at email@example.com