Sarasota’s New College of Florida has once again earned a top spot among America’s best colleges. Last Week, U.S. News & World Report ranked it fifth among the nation’s 100 best public liberal arts institutions—just behind the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Air Force Academy and Virginia Military Institute.
A hub for the arts? Yes. Top-rated beach town? For sure. But people don’t usually think of Sarasota as an elite college town, even though two of the best colleges of their kind in the U.S.—New College of Florida and the Ringling School of Art & Design —are located less than two miles from one another, just north of downtown Sarasota.
Also situated along this stretch of academia is USF/Sarasota-Manatee, which is transforming itself into much more than just the local branch of one of America’s top-tier research universities. If ambitious new plans are realized, USF/Sarasota-Manatee will double its enrollment to 10,000, add new dormitories and retail shops; and erect a $25 million academic center. Next year, USF/Sarasota-Manatee will also add freshman and sophomore classes for the first time in its history; thus stemming the “brain drain” of local students who begin college at the school’s main campus in Tampa, plan to come back to Sarasota for their junior and senior years, then don’t.
The most serendipitous aspect of these academic institutions prospering so close to one another on North Tamiami Trail is that they are also near Sarasota’s most acclaimed cultural institutions. Included in these is The Florida State University-Ringling Center for the Cultural Arts—which consists of The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Asolo Theater and the Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts. Also home to the Sarasota Ballet, the Asolo Conservatory Theatre and the Banyon Theatre Company, the center provides academic programs in theatre, dance, art, art history, and museum management.
More of Sarasota’s cultural riches are just a stone’s throw down the same highway. Arts venues that lie directly on (or near) Tamiami Trail—as it winds through downtown Sarasota—include the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Players Theater, Art Center Sarasota, Marie Selby Botanical Garden, Florida Studio Theater (and its newly re-built Gompertz Theatre), the Sarasota Opera and the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe. In the not-too-distant future, the Sarasota Museum of Modern Art—under the auspices of the Ringling College of Art & Design—will occupy the shell of the original Sarasota High School, built in 1926. The building’s facade, which faces Tamiami Trail, is a defining example of the Collegiate-Gothic style of architecture; and will be carefully preserved. Its contemporized interior will house Sarasota’s first museum of modern art along with a Visual Arts Education Center.
When academic and cultural institutions prosper, the neighborhoods and businesses around them prosper in kind. Witness Times Square, whose least attractive elements all but vanished as Broadway theatres thrived and attracted new audiences—who then proceeded to spill into the neighboring restaurants, hotels and shops. A building boom ensued as new residents and businesses raced to move into the neighborhood.
It isn’t difficult to envision an evolution similar to Times Square’s along North Tamiami Trail as these cultural and academic institutions grow and the Central Sarasota corridor that unites them takes on a whole new look, feel and purpose.