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Technically, I am a third-generation resident of Sarasota. My grandfather moved to Sarasota from a small town in Canada in 1905. My father , Cyril O. Houle was the youngest of five children and was born here in 1913. He graduated from Sarasota Memorial High School in 1929. His oldest sister, who largely raised him, was part of the very first graduating class of the high school.
My father and mother semi-retired in 1987 and moved to the Plymouth Harbor retirement home in Sarasota, Florida. They moved full-time in 1992.
During my early childhood in the 1950s and 1960s we often visited “family” as we made our summer trip to Key Biscayne. I don’t remember much from those early trips except the time spent with Aunts and Uncles. One aunt worked for the recorder of deeds a hundred years ago and one uncle ended up being the “mayor” of a large mobile home community. It is they, not me, that resulted in these street signs.
In addition, my favorite Aunt Hazel married Colonel Thomas Stevens who, after serving in WWI, WWII and the Korean War, [and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery along with Hazel] ended up leading the Army Corp of Engineers in building the Tamiami Trail from Tampa to Miami.
It was during the 1990s when I visited my parents in Sarasota several times a year, and since 2004 when I bought my first condo here, that is the Sarasota I so miss. To anchor that a bit for current residents, it was the years between my mother’s death in 2000 and the purchase of this first condo in 2004 that the Ringling Causeway was built. I remember crossing the prior drawbridge many times.
My wife and I started to come down to Sarasota from Chicago several times a year, starting in 2005. Then I became the Futurist in Residence of the Ringling College of Art and Design in 2011, reporting to the great Dr. Larry Thompson, President.
My wife and I moved to Sarasota full-time in 2015. The area has undergone massive changes since then, triggering our move back to the Chicagoland area. Much of what has and is happening in Sarasota is part of the greater decline of the state that I wrote about in the last column here.
When we moved here, I had to inform all my friends where Sarasota was.
“Where is Sarasota?”
“50 miles south of Tampa”
Oh, so you are on that side of the state.”
“Yes, the side with the best beaches, and no traffic and no paid parking”
Sarasota was a secret. It was a small town – 53,000 – with a total population of 692,000- for the greater metro area in 2015. Today the town is 56,000, and the greater metro population is now 882,000
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When we first moved here in 2015 there was minimal traffic. Basically, everything was more or less a 20-minute drive. That is now 30-40 minutes. I never drive anywhere except to a close by store or the gym between 4-6:30p. It is total gridlock. The problem is that all kinds of housing developments are going up – apartments and houses- but with no expansion of the roadways. All the construction cranes are for more housing but none for infrastructure. The public transport is minimal. I have never seen a bus more than a third full with people. No trains or trams or ferries or water taxis. It is a complete automobile town.
As recently as 2005 there was minimal high-rises in the downtown area. Today it has become a canyon of high-priced rental and condo buildings with many more on the way. Parking was always easy, even in season. Today one has to walk several blocks to get to a restaurant on Main street after cruising for 10-15 minutes for parking on side streets, or, paid parking blocks away.
Culture and the Arts
Sarasota was and still is Florida's most creative and cultured city per capita. The Ringling is the largest art museum in the state and has the most perfect grounds of any museum this side of Foundation Maeght . Kröller – Müller or Storm King. There is a long history of globally and nationally known artists, architects, painters and authors who made the town their home. There was, and to a lesser degree still are a large number – for the size of the town- of art galleries with a vibrant culture. The housing cost has increased so much in the last 10 years that artists can no longer afford to live here. Artists leaving and wealthy boomers moving into second or retirement homes.
Governor DeSantis made a goal of campaigning at the school board level state-wide for candidates that were of his political persuasion so that the school board is partially made up of MAGA/DeSantis approved politicians now. The school board meetings have become alarmingly confrontational. So the K-12 education sector is being politicized.
New College opened its doors in 1960. My father advised them in the early 1960s, a good friend of mine in high school attended in the 1960s. I became good friends with President Don O’Shea and then his successor Dr. Patricia Okker. New College was considered the “honors college” of the Florida state college and university system. It has been ranked as the #5 best liberal arts college in America.
So it was a total shock to learn that, in the first week of 2023, DeSantis blew out six members of the board to replace them with political appointees. Why? He wants to convert a beloved local institution into a “conservative Christian college.”
One of the reasons this stinks is that Dr. Okker , a noted academic, was replaced by a former legislator and lobbyist. Dr. Okker was paid $305,000 and the new president Richard Corcoran is being paid $669,000. Word on the street is that Corcoran views his New College presidency as a temporary waystation until he gets a national appointment in Washington D.C. from the newly elected President-Elect Ron DeSantis. Given the catastrophic collapse in the DeSantis presidential bid, I wonder what the former lobbyist will do once he realizes his D.C. dreams will go unfulfilled?
This hit the Sarasota community like a punch in the stomach. “Disgusting” “Outrageous” “DeSantis is a fascist” are just three of the comments the local elite have said to me.
Yes, all of the above, but to me this causes deep sadness.
I am not the only one
I have been writing a bi-weekly column in the local newspaper about the future for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune for years. Usually I get 2-3 emails in response to a column. With this column last spring, I received 87 in the first 24 hours, and then several hundred more when Yahoo! News put it out on their national feed.
The magnitude of the response overwhelmed me. I had known many people who were getting frustrated by the downward trend of Florida and Sarasota in particular, but to go from 3 to 87 emails blew me away. I was deeply moved by all the comments. I reached out to all of them to gain permission to reprint some of their comments in a subsequent column. This is a column of their comments. Please read! It echoes much of my column about Florida.
What all these comments pointed out to me was, that, as a futurist I had been focusing on all the downward trends for years ahead. I had not realized that what I was predicting was already here in the eyes of hundreds and probably thousands.
While the net increase in Florida’s – and Sarasota’s – population is up, there are probably thousands who are moving out of the state and certainly tens of thousands who will no longer visit. Evidently, many people who move to Florida, shortly move out .
So my sense of loss for the Sarasota I loved is becoming widespread.
When I moved down here I thought I would live the rest of my life in the place that Bertha Palmer, John Ringling and Paul Rudolph built and the homes of John D. McDonald, Stephen King, MacKinlay Kantor, E. B. White, John Chamberlain, and Jimmy Ernst, to name just a few creatives that made this former Paradise home.