Fueling Sarasota's Rebirth

A rebirth is underway in a former high-end Danish furniture gallery near Sarasota's Main Street where the artists of s/Art/q enjoyed success their recent inaugural, mixed-media art show in the vacant storefront. The contemporary art show represents an enlivened art scene as well as the potential boom following a real estate bust.

As Sarasota moves beyond its dependence on catering to an upscale retiree lifestyle, a grassroots community here is championing Sarasota's evolution to more diverse and vibrant city fueled by a mix of tech and creative industries.

The artists at s/Art/q, a non-profit contemporary art collaborative, are part the Sarasota HuB, a tech-creative business incubator based on the ideas of Richard Florida, author of "The Rise of the Creative Class" and most recently, "Who's Your City." Founded by 30-somethings Rich Swier and Matt Orr, Sarasota's HuB began operating in June on a shoestring budget with a handful of multitasking staff members and a big idea:  "to bring a new energy to the creative-class in Sarasota, Florida to help transform our city socially, economically and politically."

Their evolving economic development model is a creative expression in itself—a hybrid of social networking, community building and Internet startup savvy. While the s/Art/q modern art show and other events draw artists, students, designers and would-be entrepreneurs to a more vibrant social scene, the HuB offers marketing and management expertise as well as seed capital to pioneering tech and creative business people. Already, the HuB has attracted two Internet-based startups, offering in return "a community network and attention you wouldn't get if you were in Boston or the Valley," Swier says. 

Launching New Concepts

Swier, a cofounder of Sarasota's venture capital enterprise StartUp Florida, has successfully launched several Internet-based startups, including FastPitch, which is now based at HuB headquarters in Sarasota's historic downtown Rosemary district.  He recently founded VentureCast, an online network that matches business investors with entrepreneurs, from the HuB as well.  Entrepreneurs can post their business plans on VentureCast for free, and pay additional fees for matching services.

In addition to reviewing dozens of new business plans each month through VenureCast, Swier is connected to Enterprise Florida as a board appointee to its council tasked with developing the state's life sciences market sector. Orr, an uber-downtowner and former real estate agent, founded ThisWeekinSarasota.com, a website that lists user-posted events and entertainment.  The site has expanded into a multimedia company that promotes Sarasota tourism on the web, in print and on Internet television in local hotel rooms.

Early in the fall, the partners launched I Love Downtown through social media, encouraging fans and followers to send photos of what they love about Sarasota's downtown. The photos have been incorporated into the HuB's first marketing campaign to encourage patronage of downtown merchants. Within months after founding the HuB, Swier and Orr had been approached by several major arts groups and festivals for advice and social marketing strategies to help reach a new audiences and enliven arts offerings.
Sarasota's leadership has long lamented the community's talent drain—well-educated and creative college grads who leave the area to find better jobs. The Ringling College of Art and Design, for example, boasts one of the premier computer animation training programs in the country, and its graduates are recruited by DreamWorks Animation, Google and Sony. Yet the city has been unable to attract a major production studio to employ some of its design graduates.  As Sarasota County's economic development leaders discuss tax incentives for established companies that might relocate to the area or create new jobs, Swier sees cultivating Sarasota's native talent as the better approach.
Building Equity

A recent s/Art/q T-shirt silk screening party, at which partygoers chose from local artists' original designs and mingled as their T-shirts were produced, attracted more than 1,000 attendees. That event and Sarasota's first VinylFest electronic music festival featuring nationally known deejays inspired Janis Krums to base his email security company, InBoxAlarm, in Sarasota, rather than in Silicon Valley, where his partner resides.  InBoxAlarm sets up electronic traps that can detect email hackers.

Economic development, Swier says, should be measured by new dollars coming into Sarasota, and $100 million in new revenues one day would put Sarasota on track to a diverse and flourishing economy once again. 

"The obvious question is what is the shortest path," Swier says. "Tech and creative companies. Nothing grows as quickly with less investment.  We're building some equity into the city that has longevity and value."

Kim Cartlidge is a Sarasota-based journalist who thrives on the natural beauty of Sarasota's white quartz beaches, mangrove tunnels and families of urban-dwelling Sandhill Cranes. Comments?
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