August 27, 2014

Community Portrait

Sarasota County

| 1/1/2011
Downtown Sarasota
Sarasota under a harvest moon
NOTE: This photo is available as wallpaper for registered users of FloridaTrend.com.
[Photo: Steve Schadt / BigShotsArt.com]

The chief factors that define Sarasota’s personality are the median age of its population — 51, making it one of the oldest counties in its size range in the country — and its wealth. In combination, those attributes have produced a community with a trove of quality-of-life resources: One of Florida’s most vibrant downtowns, full of upscale shops and top-end restaurants. A billion-dollar philanthropic scene that employs more than 5,000 people. Good local schools. One of Florida’s most active arts and cultural scenes, encompassing opera and ballet companies, professional theater groups, the world-class Ringling Museum, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, the FSU Center for the Performing Arts complex, Selby Gardens and a host of local art galleries.

The community’s age and financial resources also have created challenges, however. Content too long with its retiree wealth, Sarasota has had to play catch-up in diversifying its economy. Half of its households earn more than $50,000 a year, and nearly 30% earn more than $75,000, but the county’s income profile is dumbbell-shaped. At one end are the well-heeled retirees with plenty of investment-related disposable income; one “report card” found that the average resident “receives more than double the Florida average for non-wage income and almost three times the national average.” At the other end are working people struggling in a local economy still dominated by service firms. Eight of 10 businesses have fewer than 10 employees. Traditionally steep housing costs in the county’s northern tier have pushed many families and new residents, particularly young people, either south into North Port, which has eclipsed Sarasota as the county’s largest city, or north into less-expensive Manatee County.

Going forward, Sarasota’s fortunes will be determined by how well it can round out an economy dominated by tourism and construction. The county’s arts and cultural scene will remain big economic drivers. The healthcare and financial services sectors should remain strong. The county boasts one of the state’s most impressive parks, Myakka River State Park, along with the white-sand beaches of Lido, Siesta and Longboat keys. Offering hope are a number of promising tech- and computer-related startups and entrepreneurs attracted by the area’s quality of life. Shell-shocked by the recession, the business community also is showing a willingness to collaborate, which it has often lacked. A countywide visioning effort called SCOPE has developed a base of support.

Perhaps most notably, some in Sarasota are choosing to view the aging population as an advantage, trying to turn the community into a lab that the rest of the country can study and use as a resource as the Baby Boomer population moves toward 70. Once a town that didn’t want to grow, Sarasota is in the middle of a transition to one struggling productively with how to grow gracefully — and renew itself in the process.

A Community Portrait of Sarasota County

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