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Sarasota County

Downtown Sarasota
Sarasota under a harvest moon
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[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
Downtown Sarasota
Downtown Sarasota [Photo: Bill Speer]

Who Lives Here?

Sarasota County: 375,585

» The county’s demographics make its population the oldest in the country among counties with more than 250,000 residents. More than half of the county’s population is older than 50 — a third are over 65.

» Three-quarters of the population live in a one- or two-person household.

» Only 12% of the county’s population speaks a language other than English at home, compared to 26% in Florida overall.

» 91% of residents have graduated from high school; 30% have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Both percentages are larger than for Florida overall.

» The population grew 13.4% between 2000 and 2009, slightly less than the Florida average. The county is the state’s 14th most populous.

Incorporated Areas

» Sarasota: 51,000 residents

» Venice: 21,000

» North Port: 56,000

» Longboat Key: The town is split between Sarasota and Manatee counties. It has 8,000 permanent residents, growing to 20,000 during peak tourist season.

Key Demographics

» White (non-Hispanic): 86%

» Hispanic or Latino: 7%

» African-American: 5%


The area has a quirky streak — it has a strong artistic and cultural focus and often supports socially liberal causes, but residents tend to vote Republican. John McCain carried the county by a couple of hundred votes in 2008, and according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, no Democratic presidential candidate has carried Sarasota County since Franklin Roosevelt in 1944. In the 2010 elections, every Republican on the Sarasota County ballot won his or her race.

St. Armands Circle
St. Armands Circle [Photo: Bill Speer]

Economic Life


» Sarasota County’s economy is dominated by small businesses: Eight of 10 businesses have fewer than 10 employees. The county also has a high number of self-employed people.

» The county has traditionally ranked high in retail sales per capita.

» The top five industry classes for employment are retail trade, healthcare, construction, administrative/waste services, and accommodation/food services.

» Compared to the U.S. overall, Sarasota has an above-average share of jobs both in health and social services and in leisure and hospitality services.

» Largely because of housing prices, the cost of living in Sarasota is higher than in most Florida cities, according to cost-of-living indexes.

» Sarasota County takes part in Florida Economic Gardening Institute’s Grow Florida program and is a regional hub for second-stage businesses seeking assistance.


Jobs in the construction industry nearly tripled between 1995 and 2005. Despite the recent contraction, “the local economy remains perilously dependent on the construction industry as a source of jobs,” according to a report prepared for Sarasota County government by a University of Michigan economist.


Sarasota Memorial Hospital
Sarasota Memorial Hospital employs one of the world’s best microscopes.

More than 17% of jobs in Sarasota are in the health sector, compared to roughly 11% nationwide.

Sarasota Memorial Health Care System, Venice Regional Medical Center, Doctors Hospital and Englewood Community Hospital are among the area’s biggest employers. Venice Regional is consistently ranked among the nation’s top 100 hospitals for heart care.

A task force established by the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County is researching ways to stimulate “medical tourism” by capitalizing on the area’s medical facilities, including the Dattoli Cancer Center, a prostate cancer center. The non-profit Roskamp Institute conducts research into Alzheimer’s disease and other neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. The Silverstein Institute treats a range of ear, nose and throat disorders.


Sarasota and Venice have some of Florida’s finest beaches. The county has an above-average share (13.2%) of jobs in leisure and hospitality compared to the national average of 10%.

St. Armands Circle is a signature destination, along with the Mote Marine Laboratory, the Ringling family’s mansion, Ca’ d’Zan, the Circus Museum and Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Top-tier accommodations include the Ritz-Carlton and the Longboat Key Club & Resort, which has completed a multimillion-dollar renovation. Recently, the county approved plans for a rowing facility aimed at creating an international rowing destination.

The Arts

Pound for pound, Sarasota is Florida’s most arts-intensive community, a major strength in the creative-class era of economic development. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has an international reputation, and downtown Sarasota is dotted with galleries. The area boasts Florida’s oldest continuing orchestra, locally based opera and ballet companies, a number of professional theater companies, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and FSU’s Ringling Center for the Performing Arts, including the Asolo Repertory and the school’s film program. Employment in arts-related companies constitutes nearly as large a share of total employment as those companies do in Manhattan.

Financial Services

While the financial service sector’s share of jobs in Sarasota mirrors the national average, the area’s wealth has attracted more than 50 financial institutions, including private banks like Harris that cater to high net worth customers.


The most notable among higher education institutions in Sarasota are New College of Florida and the Ringling College of Art and Design. New College, the Florida university system’s honors college, consistently ranks among the country’s best values in education and is among the top 10 schools in the nation in producing Fulbright fellows. Ringling, which offers degrees in fine arts, computer animation and graphics, is consistently ranked among the top 10 visual art and design schools in the Americas. The area also is home to the fast-growing USF-Sarasota Manatee campus and the State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, which recently began a nursing degree program and an energy management degree. State College also operates a middle school and a public charter collegiate high school that will offer a full scholarship to graduates who attend Florida Gulf Coast University in nearby Lee County. Also nearby in Bradenton is the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, which graduated its first class locally in 2008 and added a pharmacy school in 2007.

Sarasota is also home to a regional campus of the FSU College of Medicine, the Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, a satellite of Eckerd College, the Sarasota County Technical Institute and several for-profit universities, including Argosy and Keiser.

State College of Florida
State College of Florida


The Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport serves more than 1 million passengers a year. Airlines include Delta, AirTran, Air Canada, US Airways and JetBlue, which recently expanded service.

Notable Firms & Developments

» Benderson Development — Benderson is one of the Sarasota area’s biggest developers of shopping centers and commercial space, with a particular focus on the University Parkway area along the Sarasota-Manatee county line. The company owns or manages property in 35 states.

» Eco Trans Alliance — Eco-Trans makes solar tops that transform battery-powered electric low-speed vehicles like golf carts and trams into solar-electric vehicles.

Osprey Biotechnics
Osprey Biotechnics

» FCCI Insurance Group — Beginning as a workers’ comp firm, FCCI has expanded into other lines and now has $1.8 billion in assets and does business in 14 states. The firm, No. 45 on Florida Trend’s Top 200 Private Companies list, also has been named one of Trend’s Best Companies to Work For.

» IntegraClick — The privately held firm run by youthful executives offers online marketing services. IntegraClick was named the fifth-fastest growing company in the country by Inc. magazine.

» Ivir — The firm designs medical and military modeling and simulation programs and systems.

» L-3 Communications — The company makes the “black box” (it’s actually orange) flight recorders and other instrumentation.

» Lakewood-Amedex — The startup genetic technology firm specializes in biopharmaceuticals, with applications in “gene silencing” and treating infectious diseases.

» LexJet — The firm designs, makes and markets wide-format inkjet printing equipment. The company’s founders have also started a company, Digital Leather, that does custom digital printing on leather.

METI engineer Pat Vitale
METI engineer Pat Vitale works on a medical simulator. [Photo: Fred Victorin / St. Petersburg Times]

» METI (Medical Education Technologies) — The manufacturer of medical training technology, including patient simulators, has more than 200 employees.

» Osprey Biotechnics — The biotechnology firm makes bacteria used in industrial, environmental and agricultural applications.

» Palmer Ranch — The 10,500-acre master-planned real estate development bears the name of Bertha Palmer, who purchased about 90,000 acres in the early 1900s and was influential in Sarasota’s evolution from fishing village to upscale resort town.

» PGT Industries — The door and window manufacturer had to downsize after the real estate collapse but remains a top employer.

» Robrady Design — The design and product development firm takes ideas from concept to market.

» Schroeder-Manatee Ranch — The 48-square-mile Schroeder-Manatee Ranch property sits on the Manatee-Sarasota county line. The company continues to conduct agricultural operations in Manatee and has developed a master-planned residential development, Lakewood Ranch in Manatee, and commercial property in Sarasota County.

» Star2Star Communications — Makes and markets a business telephone system using voice-over-internet protocol.

» Sun Hydraulics — Sun designs and manufactures hydraulic cartridge valves for industrial uses. The company has facilities in the U.K., Germany, France, Korea, China and India.

» Sunovia Energy Technologies — The company, which develops and markets products in the solar technology and LED lighting markets, recently moved to Sarasota and already has plans to expand.

» Tervis Tumbler — The cup manufacturer has had explosive growth under CEO Laura Spencer.

» Willis A. Smith Construction — The commercial construction and planning company specializes in green building.

» Zenith National Insurance — The workers’ comp insurer does business in 45 states.

Window maker PGT Industries
Window maker PGT Industries

Top 10 Employers

  • Publix 1,602
  • PGT Industries 913
  • Venice Regional Medical Center 830
  • SunTrust Bank 819
  • Sun Hydraulics 640
  • Comcast Cablevision 595
  • Sunset Automotive Group 500
  • Ritz-Carlton of Sarasota 473
  • Goodwill Industries 473
  • Longboat Key Club & Resort 417
Must-Know Contacts

» Dan Bailey — Attorney, Williams Parker Harrison Dietz & Getzen

» Joe Barbetta — Attorney; chair, Sarasota County Commission

» Kathy Baylis — President, Economic Development Commission of Sarasota County

» Randy Benderson — President, Benderson Development

Diane McFarlin
Diane McFarlin [Photo: Rob Mattson / Sarasota Herald-Tribune]

» Stephen and Jeffery Boone — Attorneys with Boone, Boone, Boone, Koda & Frook in Venice

» Frank Brunckhorst — Chairman, Boar’s Head Provisions Co.

» David Bullock — Deputy county administrator

» Margaret Callihan — President/CEO/Chairman, SunTrust Bank/Southwest Florida

» Lisa Carlton — Co-manager, Mabry Carlton Ranch; former state senator

» John Cranor — Chairman, AFC Enterprises

» John Dart — Attorney, Adams and Reese

» Phil Delaney — President/ CEO, Northern Trust Bank (Sarasota, Manatee)

» Tim Dutton — Executive director, SCOPE

» David Farley — Former Venice city councilman; owner, Farley Funeral Homes

» C.J. Fishman — President, Fishman & Associates, commercial kitchen design firm

» Teri Hansen — President/CEO, Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice

» Steve Harner — Owner, Crow’s Nest Marina Restaurant

» Debra Jacobs — President, Patterson Foundation

» Bob Johnson — Attorney, Johnson, Browning and Clayton; former state senator

» Kelly Kirschner — Sarasota mayor; senior vice president, The Media Maquiladora

» Klauber Family — Murf, former owner/chairman, Colony Beach & Tennis Resort; Katherine Klauber Moulton, former president, Colony; Michael, owner, Michael’s on East restaurant; Tommy, owner of Pattigeorge’s and Polo Grill

Kumar Mahadevan
Kumar Mahadevan [Photo: Bill Speer]

» Allan Lane — North Port economic development manager

» Robert Lane — CPA, Kerkering Barberio

» Cathy Layton — Owner, Layton and Co.

» James Ley — Sarasota County administrator

» Thomas Luzier — Attorney, Dunlap & Moran

» Gwen MacKenzie — President/CEO, Sarasota Memorial Health Care System

» Diane McFarlin — Publisher, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

» Kumar Mahadevan — President, Mote Marine Laboratory

Gordon “Mike” Michalson Jr.
Gordon “Mike” Michalson Jr. [Photo: Barbara Banks]

» Jim McManemon — General manager, Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota

» Gordon “Mike” Michalson Jr. — President, New College

» Pat Neal — President, Neal Communities

» Sarah Pappas — President emeritus, Manatee Community College; project manager, USF Sarasota-Manatee Institute for Public Policy and Leadership; president, Selby Foundation

» Frederick “Rick” Piccolo — President/CEO, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport; chairman, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

» Steve Queior — President/CEO, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce

» Henry Rodriguez — developer and political fundraiser

» John Ryan — President/CEO, Venice Area Chamber of Commerce

» Michael Saunders and Drayton Saunders — Real estate firm Michael Saunders & Co.

» David Sessions — President, Willis A. Smith Construction

» Laura Spencer — CEO, Tervis Tumbler

» Larry Thompson — President, Ringling College of Art and Design

» Lee Wetherington — President, Lee Wetherington Homes

» Norm Worthington, Mark Famiglio — Founders, mobile documentation company CopyTalk

Downtown Venice
Downtown Venice [Photo: Bill Speer]

Quality of Life


Beginning in the early 1990s, Sarasota’s downtown underwent a transformation that has made it one of the state’s most vibrant — there is a strong residential component along with Palm Avenue’s “Gallery Row,” the renovated Sarasota Opera House, a movie theater complex, restaurants and upscale shops.


Like many Florida communities, Sarasota struggles with the divided philanthropic loyalties of its seasonal residents. Philanthropy, however, is a core part of the community. Among high-wealth individuals who make charitable donations, the average gift is more than $7,320. Among business owners who give, the average gift is more than $11,700. The county has two of Florida’s largest community foundations. The Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice, Florida’s largest community foundation with more than $250 million in assets, is one of Florida Trend’s Best Companies to Work For. Last year it awarded some $16.5 million in scholarships and grants in the areas of arts and culture, health and human services, education, civic affairs and the environment. The Community Foundation of Sarasota County has $113 million in assets and awarded more than $10 million in grants and scholarships in 2009. Numerous other foundations also contribute to the community’s philanthropic life. The Glasser Schoenbaum Human Services Center, for example, provides a rent-free home for 17 non-profit health and human services agencies.

Florida House Learning Center

The modernized cracker-style house was built in 1994 to demonstrate environmentally responsible construction and design and has provided a centerpiece for the area’s environmental consciousness.

Myakka River State Park

Once part of a ranch, Myakka River is one of the state’s largest and oldest, encompassing nearly 60 square miles of wetlands and woodlands.

Arts & Leisure

Asolo repertory theater
Asolo Repertory Theatre

The list of significant arts and cultural groups and venues in Sarasota is massive, including:

» John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

» Circus Museum

» Sarasota Orchestra

» Sarasota Ballet

» Sarasota Opera

» Asolo Repertory Theatre

» Banyan Theater Co.

» Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall

» Sarasota Film Festival

» Sarasota Film Society Cine-World Festival

» Sarasota Music Festival

» The Ringling International Arts Festival

» FSU Ringling Center for the Performing Arts

» The Marie Selby Botanical Gardens features one of the best collections of orchids, bromeliads, lichens and other epiphytes in the world and is a leader in their study.

» The Baltimore Orioles conduct spring training at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. The Pittsburgh Pirates train in nearby Bradenton.

Ringling Museum
Ringling Museum of Art

Taxes and Government

Sarasota County ranks 22nd in total taxes levied per capita. Since 2001, the county has been implementing a performance management system. In 2006, it received an award from the Florida City/County Managers Association for innovations in communications and technology.


Sarasota County, the state’s 14th most populous, ranked 21st in 2009 in crimes per 100,000 population.


76% of Sarasota County schools meet high standards in reading, 82% in math and 89% in writing. The district has received an A grade from the state every year since 2004 — one of only 13 counties to do so.

Why I Live Here

I was brought to Sarasota against my will at age 10 in the back of my parents’ Rambler from upstate New York. I had a high fever from the chicken pox.

Cathy Layton
Cathy Layton
My first vision was looking up from the back seat, as I lay in sickness, at the underside of swaying palm fronds, the glowing statues on St. Armands Circle, hearing the drone of the tires as we crossed a drawbridge steel span as we approached the hotel we’d call home for a week. During those moments, I thought I had died from my fever, and I thought I was in heaven.

And I still think I am in heaven.

Sarasota has a scale that is comfortable yet diverse. Beauty abounds, whether it is the bays, canals and beaches, lush landscaping and streets and houses that teem with pride.

Sarasota has a heart and cares for its citizens. The business community is generous with time and money. Government is trustworthy and open to ideas. Social services are plentiful. Sports and arts opportunities abound. We collectively do good things and are able to poke fun when things don’t go quite right.

I love belonging, being able to make a difference together with good people, and coming home thankful that my parents knew a good place when they saw one.

Cathy Layton
President, Layton & Co.

In 1992, when we moved from Irvine, Calif., we could have chosen to live anywhere in the state because my job involved traveling throughout the state during the week. I looked up an old high school classmate who had resided in Sarasota for decades, and he provided me with insights into Sarasota that convinced us to choose Sarasota. We were acutely concerned for the local public schools with two daughters aged 10 and 12 coming from outstanding schools in suburban Los Angeles/Orange County. We were impressed with the overall quality of the local schools, especially the public school option of Pine View School for the Gifted and Talented, which covered second grade through high school and operated as a magnet school for the county. We had lived near the ocean in California and refused to give up proximity to the sea. We found a quieter and slower existence here but with a mature and sophisticated fabric in the community. As I have continued to travel the entire state for business, I would not choose any place above Sarasota for quality of life.

Carl & Gloria Pearse