Soft Landing in Paradise

No one seems to agree exactly when this latest recession began, precisely how long it will last; or how painful it will be in the final analysis. But there’s plenty of evidence that as a community we can do much to control our own destiny when it comes to cushioning ourselves from its more predictable consequences. Do we, therefore, opt for a soft landing? Or settle for a resounding thud?

Study after study shows that money spent in independent, locally-owned stores, boutiques and restaurants will generate more positive economic impact per square foot than the same amount spent inside a national chain; 70 percent more, in fact, according to one retail study conducted in 2004. In economic times as perilous as these, every dollar of income and tax-producing revenue that isn’t allowed to escape the area can spell the difference between mild fiscal discomfort and major economic disaster. Although we’re all looking for new ways to control spending, stretch our budgets and live within our means, it just makes sense to spend what we must where it will do the most good.

The study found that spending $100 in an independent neighborhood business creates $68 in additional local economic activity; while spending $100 in a chain store produces only $43 worth of local impact. A second study—from 2003—found that nearly 45 percent of the revenue collected by local independent merchants stays within the community; while another nine percent stays within the state. The four largest components of local spending are: Wages and benefits paid to local employees; goods and services purchased from other local businesses; profits that accrue to local owners; and taxes paid to local and state government. The study also estimated that a national retailer re-circulates only 14.1 percent of its revenue back into the local economy.

While “big-box” retailers typically serve up big savings thanks to their national buying clout, there are several compelling reasons to spread your spending as judiciously as possible to include local merchants and independent restaurateurs. You might pay a little extra for the experience; but as they say, “what goes around comes around.” In this case, what comes around—hopefully again and again—will be the dollars you spend in these businesses being re-circulated through other local businesses; and so on. Plus, for an area that prides itself on its philanthropic activities, its well worth noting that local businesses contribute more money to local causes—per each dollar of revenue earned—than does the average national retailer.

Happily, shopping our locally-owned stores is as much a treat as it is an act of municipal patriotism. After all, our brand of open-air shopping on palm-lined esplanades is one of the big reasons why people travel here from all over the world. Its part of the Sarasota experience. From the stores, boutiques, galleries and restaurants of Main Street, Palm Avenue, Burns and Towles Courts to the labyrinth of stores that line the streets of Gulf Gate; and from Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street to the arcades of Venice Avenue and the quirky ambiance of Bradenton’s Village of the Arts, shopping and gallery crawls just don’t get more beautiful, more relaxed or more diversified. As the promos for St. Armands Circle so aptly advise, its time to “get out of ‘the box’ and into the circle.”

Nowhere is the sense of independence, quality, local identity and regional pride more in evidence than on the Sarasota-Manatee culinary scene, which is especially worth patronizing and preserving in these hardest of times. Within a twenty-mile radius of downtown Sarasota, there are more Florida Trend Award and Zagat top-scoring restaurants than any other area of the state.

A group of 24 independently owned restaurants in the Sarasota-Manatee County region own the distinction of being Florida’s first chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA). CIRA has established chapters in 18 other cities around the US; and the Sarasota-Manatee “Originals,” as they call themselves, now boast more than 50 active members—including longtime local classics, trendy new arrivals and dependable neighborhood favorites. Every one of these award-winning eateries is independently owned and operated; and dependent on far more than three-months of seasonal patronage to shoulder leaner times and the annual off-season lull. Best of all, a thriving restaurant scene will attract more tourism and encourage new restaurateurs to fearlessly test the waters. Visit FreshOriginals.com for a full listing of the member restaurants and their individual Web sites. Bon appétit!

Then there’s the arts and cultural scene, arguably the region’s number-one calling card and claim to fame; typically mentioned in the same breath as our spectacular climate and world-class beaches. Few enterprises suffer more at the hands of economic malaise than those that depend heavily on federal, state and municipal arts grants—and all manner of private funding in between; line items that are typically first to feel the budget axe in challenging economic times. There’s never been a time when our cultural scene—so important to our economy and the world’s view of Sarasota—was more vulnerable.

The list of cultural venues, art galleries and museums is far too lengthy for this piece, but a visit to SarasotaArts.org is a great place to find out the whats, whens, and wheres. Buy a ticket (or two) and support one of the region’s most remarkable and reliable tourist draws. It’s a fabulous night out and the money stays in the community to presumably nurture future productions.

If the laws of economics say recessions are a necessary part of the normal cycle, can you think of a better place to cycle through one? Please do as much as you possibly can to keep “Paradise” from becoming Paradise lost.

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