Local business owners share thoughts on economy

With Sarasota’s unemployment rate 3.4 percent higher than the national average and 1.2
percent higher than that of Florida (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), Sarasotans are surely
feeling the sting of the recession. While the 13.4% unemployment rate could make any
economist, politician or news anchor flinch, there does seem to be a silver lining that only local
business owners can reveal. The Tangent spoke with several business owners to gauge their
thoughts on the local economy. The consensus? Cautious optimism.
In the unassuming North Trail Plaza on U.S. highway 41 the Bistro du Monde has been
serving coffee and lunch with a side of cool atmosphere for the past year and a half. Veteran
restauranteur of 11 years Steve Gillum opened the bistro after selling his restaurant in Cleveland,
OH and moving to Sarasota while working in construction. “I went back and did construction
for a while here and built a few homes,” Gillum told the Tangent. “Then when real estate got so
crazy I kind of retired. And then I thought about this place in the neighborhood and I thought I’d
open up a little coffee shop.”
Opening during the middle of the recession hasn’t stopped Bistro du Monde from attracting
more and more diners. “We’ve been steadily picking up actually, which is good,” Gillum
said. “We still get new people every day and we get a good lunch crowd.” Whether Bistro du
Monde’s steady growth is mostly attributable to an improving economy or the word of mouth
advertising Bistro du Monde enjoys is a tough call. “I think it’s a combination of both,” Gillum
said. “I think the economy is improving, but I think people still eat and drink coffee and if you
make a good product, I think there’s a market there.”
While starting a business is bound to have it’s challenges, especially in a recession, the Bistro
du Monde hasn’t encountered anything out of the ordinary. “Oh, there’s always challenges. Just
the typical of any business I would think,” Gillum told the Tangent. Getting started. Finding the
right people people to work for you, establishing clientele, planning what the menu was, getting
the right flow and typical business problems that you have in anything. Nothing major.”
Just a few feet from the Bistro du Monde stands Funtoysia, a family owned and operated toy
store run by a daughter, her mother and her grandmother. Although Funtoysia has been at its
current location for only two years, the family has been in the toy store business for 25 years. “I
went to school at Ringling and the family and everyone fell in love with the weather,” graduate
of Ringling College of Art and Design and owner of Funtoysia Abby Koonce told the Tangent.
After she graduate, both the family and the toy store made the move to Sarasota.
“It’s always different when you move to a new location, but business, I guess you say, is like
a yo-yo. So, good days and bad days,” Koonce explained. While the odds seemed to be stacked
against an independent toy store such as Funtoysia and in favor of larger retail outlets such as
Toys “R” US, Funtoysia holds its own. “We tend to attract people that don’t necessarily have to
get all the video games and such and we have [products from] over 32 countries now,” Koonce
said. “People see that we try to get things that are a little more unusual that you wouldn’t find at
Toys “R” US, Wal-Mart or Target.”
According to market research firm NPD Group the share of spending for kids on toys
increased during the 2009 holiday season and it seems to be echoed by Funtoysia. “I think that
things are picking up, but there’s always that time of year, you know, the holidays are better and
Spring Break, so it’s usually more eventful at certain times of the year.”
Sarasota News and Books in Downtown Sarasota was brought under new management,
renovated and reopened as Media on Main, a coffee shop, book store and Apple Authorized
retail reseller. “We’ve been open here for six weeks and it’s been fantastic,” Sales Manager Dave
Stoltie told the Tangent. “We’ve gotten tremendous fee back from the local community.”
Although Stoltie has only been a resident of Sarasota for several months, he senses that many
locals are optimistic “My observation is that people seem to be of the opinion that it’s coming
back and there are a lot of opportunities,” Stoltie explained. “I think it’s going to take quite a
while for the economy to recover from what it’s gone through the past couple of years.
Even the vendors at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium market have felt the economic
squeeze. Jewelry vendor Alison Karsh has had a booth during shows since 2004 and has been
keeping her finger on the pulse of business. “It’s down, but it’s coming back a little,” explained
Karsh. “. . . They’re buying again. Last year was horrible. Everything had slowed down.”
Other vendors have seen even more significant improvements in just the first three months
of 2010. “I’ve been in this business for 20 years. In the last 8 years I’ve been single and self
employed in this business so this is my only income, this is all I do,” estate liquidator Laura Lutz
told the Tangent. “And I am more diversified, I work harder and longer hours and this is the best
year I’ve ever had in 20 years in this business and I think that’s very encouraging.”
The increase in business isn’t just a perception thanks to a gut reaction according to Lutz, it’s
backed up with numbers “My other job before I did this was accounting . So I keep track of my
numbers. This business has to make sense for me.”
Most Sarasota businesses are dependent on tourists and the Sarasota Convention &
Visitors Bureau has been keeping track of those numbers as well. The number of visitors, their
expenditures, hotel motel and condo occupancy were all down by a few percentage points in
2009 when compared to 2008. “2009 was not the best year,” Sarasota Convention & Visitors
Bureau Communications Director Erin Duggan said. “And in the industry basically everyone
was saying that flat was good. If you could keep it flat, that was good.”
While Sarasota may have suffered a 3.3% decrease in overall visitors, Sarasota experienced
a 8.1% increase in Floridian visitors during 2009. “One of our number one markets is within
the state of Florida,” Duggan explained. “The good thing about our number one market being
Florida is that for the most part it’s always going to be fairly easy for them to jump in the car
and come. We’re not relying on the airline industry, we’re not relying on the prices of gas as
much because it’s a relatively half day drive for the most part from anywhere within the state of
Florida. That’s not to say that the price of gas doesn’t take an impact in some way shape or form,
but not as badly as it could. So that’s one more plus for us.”
Visitors to Sarasota not only impact the economy directly through the expenditures, but
through the taxes they pay as well. Those who stay in Sarasota currently pay a 4% tax when
staying in a hotel, motel or condo. Known as a “bed tax,” each penny on the dollar is allocated
for specific uses. The bed tax will be raised to 4 1/2% percent starting may and will be devoted to funding local arts projects and
events.
While the numbers for 2009 may have been weaker than hoped for, 2010 might be seeing
signs of a turn around on the Visitor Center’s front lines. “In here we have had a fabulous year
[2010],” Visitor Center Coordinator Karen Gallagher told the Tangent. With more than 7,000
visitors stopping by the visitors center in the month of February, the numbers have increased
dramatically since last year.
In contrast, numbers that are good to see dramatically drop are those of the number of
houses available on the market. “Based on the Sarasota county inventory as it is tracked by trend
graphics out of California, we peaked at 13,400 units on the market in April of ‘07, we’re down
to 7100 now, that’s a significant change,” Michael Saunders & Company Realtor Lawrence
Zeigler told the Tangent. “We’ve had dramatic improvements the last 4 or 5 months here.
February sales for Sarasota county were 1,146 sales on a base of 7,100 inventory . . . and that’s
an excellent absorption rate.”
Based on the recent amount of sales and the shrinking inventory, the real estate crisis
may finally be at the turnaround point. “Barring unforeseen national economic difficulties or
international as well because whats happening in Europe affects us much more,” Zeigler said. “I
see continued improvement in the market and thats gonna be largely dependent on continued
consumer confidence and improving economic conditions.”
Whether it be the tourism industry or the bimonthly flea-marketers at the Sarasota Municipal
Auditorium, they’ve all felt the pinch of the economic recession. However, after a few years of
rough times, “Growth has been good,” owner of Buddha Belly Donuts Laura Thompson told the
Tangent. “It’s promising.”
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