Saratopia Rivals Portlandia For Laughs, Sarasota

Just say "Put a bird on it!,'' and everyone knows you're gently mocking Portland, OR, the West Coast capital of all things insufferably hip. The line comes from popular TV series Portlandia, which has taken aim in its comedic sketches at Portlanders' passions for everything from feminist bookstores to locally farmed poultry. In the infamous "Put a bird on it!'' sketch, which has garnered more than a million views on YouTube, the show's actors stencil decorative bird graphics on teapots and tote bags ad nauseam.

Now Sarasota is getting a dose of the Portlandia treatment. In February, the Hub -- a collective of artists and multimedia producers led by serial entrepreneur Rich Swier, Jr. -- launched Saratopia, a web video series that lovingly lampoons the city. Over the past two months, the group has released four webisodes, three to nine minutes in length, and plans to produce around 40 in total.

Like Portlandia, Saratopia's satirical sketches express ironic pride in the city. The most watched webisode so far -- Episode 2: Sh*t Nobody Says In Sarasota, with more than 10,000 views on YouTube -- has coined the memorable one-liner, "Slow Down, Snowbird,'' uttered with deadpan irony by 30-something actors in the video. The joke, which hardly requires explaining for Floridians, spoofs Sarasota's reputation as a haven for slow-driving retirees.

The Hub has even printed the line on bumper stickers and distributed them through downtown businesses including Pastry Art cafe -- the setting for a different Saratopia episode that pokes fun at the city's computerized parking meters -- and The Blue Owl bar. Still other webisodes jokingly present Sarasota's mayor as a guy in a clown nose (a direct reply to Portlandia’s new agey chief executive) and local drag queen Beneva Fruitville as the proprietress of a snooty boutique.

The Hub has already gained attention in Sarasota for media stunts, including a 2010 campaign to become a test market for Google's high-speed broadband service that involved changing the name of City Island to Google Island (a proposal that won the cooperation of city officials). The group also leads a downtown marketing effort dubbed "I Love Downtown'' and did a Circus Sarasota promotion in January with acrobatic stuntman Bello, who dangled by his foot from a helicopter for a YouTube video produced by the Hub.   

Swier characterizes the campaigns, including Saratopia, as efforts to jumpstart Sarasota's 21st century identity, undertaken by the Hub's media savvy members "to create a city that we love.''
"What we face as a city is that we're branded as this old retirement community and, secondarily, as a beach town, but we see a creative class subculture,'' Swier says. "We’ve got to show the creative professional, the young person, that this energy is here.''
The Hub itself aims to be a hive of such young professional energy -- "a hybrid between a hippie commune and a business incubator'' that provides office space and resources for young tech and media companies to grow, Swier explains. Saratopia showcases the talents of some of its most successful members, including star Joey Panek, better known in Sarasota as the Art Whisperer for his website and video series devoted to the visual and performing arts, another Hub-facilitated production.

Nurturing Sarasota Entrepreneurs
The Hub got its start in 2009 as a 2,000-square-foot co-working space founded by Swier and then-business partner Matt Orr. Swier -- a University of Florida grad who launched Sarasota Online, a regional internet service provider, in 1994 and sold it to Comcast three years later -- saw the need for a space to nurture local entrepreneurs. By 2010, the Hub had tripled in size. This summer, led by Swier and a new partner, Jesse Biter, it will reopen as a 11,000-square-foot office suite inside a 44,000-square-foot building at 1680 Fruitville Road. (The floor below is partially occupied by BioLucid Technologies, a biotech animation firm that got its start at the Hub.) The building will be branded with the Hub's logo.

The new space has been built with the Hub's way of growing businesses in mind. Thirty dorm-room sized offices -- each big enough to house a tech-start up, Swier says -- have been arranged around a multipurpose video and sound production studio with a green room. A pair of lounges, a boardroom, a bar and a DJ area round out the space’s features, which are designed to support entrepreneurial needs for YouTube video production and flexible work-play spaces.

Swier also expects the space to host events like cocktail parties and improv nights in partnership with local arts organizations and charities.

When the space opens in July or August, Swier hopes the number of entrepreneurs associated with the Hub will climb to 70 or 80 from the current 30. Rental rates will be flexible depending upon whether entrepreneurs can contribute to collaborative Hub projects and whether the Hub wants to invest in their businesses.

With enough support, a next generation of entrepreneurs will change the face of Sarasota, Swier says. With Saratopia, he hopes to convince them to consider the city as a real urban paradise by appealing to their funny bone. 

"We come up with crazy ideas and see what sticks,'' Swier says.

Megan Voeller of Tampa is a contributing writer to 83 Degrees Media and the visual art critic for Creative Loafing. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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