Sarasota’s economy has been built on two elements: tourism and real estate. For years, local leaders have discussed the importance of diversifying our economy.
Organic farming is emerging as an important avenue toward achieving that long sought-after goal. At the County’s annual Sustainable Sarasota conference, local agriculture advocate Don Hall told his audience that if Sarasota residents purchased 10 percent of their food from locally grown sources, it would add $80 million a year to our local economy. A significant boost, and one that brings health benefits to residents as well.
During a recent Council of Neighborhood Associations meeting, Civil Engineer Steve Suau discussed the potential Sarasota holds for becoming a major organic food center. Global Organics, a leading distributor of organic produce in the Southeast, is located off of Clark Road and Sawyer. Even small local growers can work with Global Organics to package their food and plug into an existing distribution network. This rare infrastructure already exists in our backyard and offers an important economic opportunity. Organic food production can create a financial foundation less vulnerable to economic downturns. People have to eat, and we are all becoming more aware of the importance of fresh, nutritious, chemical-free food. With this approach, Sarasota’s “brand” could become one of heath and wellness—great healthcare, year-round exercise and fitness opportunities, and nutritious local organic food.
Sarasota County government’s focus on subsidizing sprawl development inhibits the emergence of better opportunities like organic farming. When the County Commission approved over 9,000 new houses east of Interstate-75 along Clark Road last year, they released the landowners from a requirement to purchase Transferred Development Rights for their rural lands. The 9,000-unit housing approval increased the number of potential dwellings by 5,500-6,300 units, at a time when potential housing supply exceeds 10 year demand by 600-800 percent. County staff did not support suspending the required developer TDR purchase. Simply put, there was no public need for the huge increase in potential housing. There was no public benefit to throwing out the rule book, but the benefit to the landowners was substantial. Based on prior County TDR transactions, if enforced, the price for the required TDRS to get the 5,500- to 6,300-unit increase would have exceeded $14 million. The Clark Road developers claimed the required TDR purchase was “too expensive.”
Yes, TDRs are expensive. And that’s the point. If a rural project isn’t able to absorb the cost of TDRs, the market is signaling that the project isn’t needed. Releasing the Clark Road developers from purchasing TDRs conferred value upon the landowners, failed to protect the value of existing homes and neighborhoods, and diminished other options like organic farming. Where is the concern among County Commissioners that taxpayer-funded infrastructure for surplus housing is “too expensive”? How will the Clark Rd. and I-75 interchange fare with these changes?
Sarasota County as a center for health and wellness is a natural fit. Our hospitals routinely receive national recognition for excellence. Fitness opportunities are plentiful, and future investments in parks and recreation can bring real returns. Local organic produce contains the seeds of potent economic growth. But if we are to realize our potential as a community, we need to stop giving away the farm.