Sarasota says: Millennials matter

Photo credit: Pariesa Young

In a poll of about 25 students present at the feedback session for Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan, 90 percent of participants reported that they do not plan to stay in Sarasota after graduating. More and more young people – or “millennials,” the generation aged 18 to 34 – are moving away from Sarasota, leading to a unique and pressing issue: the depletion of Sarasota’s workforce.

Millennials make up only 12 percent of Sarasota’s population, despite being the largest and most diverse generation in the U.S.. Sarasota’s median age is 53.1. The population of millennials exists mostly in the area’s colleges, but graduates are choosing not to stay in Sarasota.

“I love this little tropical paradise just so much, but it doesn’t have the large, dynamic community and culture that I want to surround myself in once I graduate,” thesis student Patricia “Tricia” Johnson said in an email after the event.

The large baby boomer population here is retiring and Sarasota and Manatee counties are preparing for a mass exodus from the workforce, as nearly all boomers will have reached retirement age by 2025. With an aging population and a shortage of workers, Sarasota’s planners are in a bind. Finding new ways to attract and retain millennials is a central goal in the reworking of Sarasota County’s Comprehensive Plan.

“ One of the big things turning me away from Sarasota is that they’re trying to create a community of people that just aren’t coming without first taking care of the people in need,” Johnson said. “I’d rather live in a community that actively caters to all of its members before living somewhere that just wants me because I’m young.”

Elma Felix of the county planning division described a comprehensive plan as a “policy-based document which guides future growth.” In updating the document – the first draft of which is due in January – the county plans to focus on seven unique aspects: environmental systems, mobility, economic development, public utilities, land use and urban design, and quality of life and synergy.

I’d like to see more affordable housing, urban planning that encourages community, a larger job market for ‘creatives,’ a better public transportation system, greater diversity in the community, less snowbirds, nicer old people,” Johnson said.

The current plan is more than seven years old, 12 pounds, 1,200 pages long and rife with jargon and complex policies. The planners aim to update the data and background information in the plan, highlighting the severe demographic shift that will befall Sarasota if the county fails to keep millennials around.

“We [will] take this to our administrators, to our County Commissioners, and say ‘Here’s what we heard today’ and ‘Look at this demographic, isn’t this startling? What are we going to do?’” Felix said. “[The workshop] just really confirmed a lot of things that we expected.”

Less than half of Sarasota’s eligible population participated in the workforce last year, which means that younger people are not working – or not finding jobs. For many New College students – 61 percent of those present at the forum – career opportunities are the most important factor in choosing a place to live, and if Sarasota’s job market has nothing to offer, recent graduates will undoubtedly move away to seek better opportunities.

Sarasota’s economy is largely focused on the service industry – known to be dominated by low-wage jobs – and caters to the many retirees who call Sarasota home.

But even if there is a job lined up, it is hardly worth taking without an expectation of affordable housing and a manageable cost of living. Of the top 10 rising industries for millennials in Sarasota, only one – nursing – offers a median salary adequate to afford a single family home in Sarasota.

According to U.S. Census data from 2013, nearly 60 percent of renters in Sarasota pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. This represents a severe cost-burden for more than 18,000 Sarasota residents.

A recent study from the Florida Housing Coalition found that the number of low-income renters in Sarasota who are cost-burdened by their rent has increased 12 percent in the last 10 years. This study estimated that more households in Sarasota County are burdened by housing and transportation costs than in New York City and San Francisco, according to the Herald-Tribune.

There are 407 students with cars registered on campus, which leaves more than half of our student population to depend on public transportation or bikes to get around Sarasota. Many students cited public transportation as a key factor which must be improved to keep young people in town. Students referenced dangerous bike lanes, narrow sidewalks and difficult SCAT schedules as areas for improvement.

After career opportunities, quality of life was the next important factor in choosing a place to live, with 26 percent of students at the forum making this their priority. A lack of recreation for young people was mentioned as a contributing element which keeps millennials from staying in Sarasota. “Sarasota is beautiful but super boring sometimes,” Johnson said.

Furthermore, socially equitable conditions are a point of attraction when a graduate seeks out a place to live. When asked what can be done better in this area, many students mentioned feeling dissatisfied with the way Sarasota has treated its houseless population. Florida has the third highest homeless population in the nation. In past years, this has experienced a large amount of public attention, dating back to Sarasota being named the “meanest”city to the homeless in 2005.

Third-year Zachary Roper cited panhandling policies as one way local Sarasota governments have attempted to curtail the rights of the homeless. In 2013, the City of Sarasota passed an ordinance banning panhandling, which was quickly targeted by the American Civil Liberties Union as a curtailment of free speech. Its constitutionality was not upheld and panhandlers are still a common sight on the busy medians along North Tamiami Trail.

Still, students are wary of Sarasota’s treatment of the homeless and mention that empathy and support to those who have been left without stable living conditions are an essential facet of an attractive community. An interest in improving the lives of homeless people is something that Felix said she had never heard before in prior workshops.

This was the first time Sarasota County has come to New College to glean student opinions of the community. “It’s a shame that Sarasota hasn’t gotten to know us  and vice versa,” NCSA Co-President and third-year Paige Pellaton said at the forum.

“I think the meeting was the beginning necessary to a relationship between Sarasota County and New College students,” Johnson said.

Felix noticed that most of the Comprehensive Plan workshops held over the last seven to eight months were being attended by an older demographic. “Our typical demographic is over 60,” Felix said. “To hear the perspective of New College students was definitely refreshing. Until we get on the ground and have conversations with students and young professionals, we’re just guessing.”

“We had a good turnout and we’re happy with the comments that we got,” Felix added.

The planning department hopes to partner with other colleges in the area and return to New College once the first draft of the plan is submitted mid-January.

I suggested that future meetings are held in the evenings, to allow more students to get involved,” Johnson said. “I think that’s going to happen with the rest of the series, which I’m really excited for.”

Comments, questions and concerns regarding Sarasota’s Comprehensive Plan can be submitted electronically to

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