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Board Encourages New Merchants Group, Downtown Sarasota Alliance To Work Together

The Downtown Improvement District wants to see a unified effort promoting downtown and urges the two groups to resolve their internal differences.

As quick as a new downtown merchants association wanted to split and chart its own course, the Downtown Improvement District encouraged it to work together with the Downtown Sarasota Alliance.

Members of a new group Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association appeared before the district's board of directors Tuesday morning asking for some credit and that the district's marketing money would be restricted to the Downtown Improvement District area where merchants pay a special tax.

"We should be more like Las Vegas: What I pays in the DID, stays in the DID," said Ron Kennedy, co-owner of Kennedy Studios on Main Street and part of the new merchants association that wants to keep the city clean and beautiful while promoting merchants in the downtown core.

The new association includes 34 members so far, some of which are also part of the Downtown Sarasota Alliance, and were formed out of the parking meter controversy earlier this year along with their dissatisfaction with the Downtown Sarasota Alliance structure and decisions in relation to the Downtown Improvement District merchants.

"DSA is not a bad thing," said Ron Soto, a captain of the merchants association. "…The problem is you only have a very select few merchants paying for everything and that's gotta stop."

The Downtown Sarasota Alliance requested, and received $20,000 in non-recurring marketing money by the DID this morning in a 3-1 vote, but with some promises attached.

DID Board Chairman Ernie Ritz asked that the Downtown Sarasota Alliance work with the new organization, give them credit in advertisements for their events and give the Downtown Improvement District credit in the ads as well.

"When our taxpayers are looking at the ads, it all says DSA," Ritz said. "Right now it doesn't look like we're getting any credit."

Ritz said the merchants group has a "particular need that's different than everyone else's."

"What won't you guys start working together like you're working with the residents?" he said.

Alliance Chairman John Harshman, assured that his all-volunteer organization would commit to working with the new merchants association as long as they follow DSA guidelines for requests. 

The $20,000 will mainly go toward the Dine Downtown and Live From Sarasota Friday nights promotions.

The DSA has 330 members and about 115 of which are businesses in the Downtown Improvement District, Harshman said. The remaining members are about 24 percent residents and the remaining are businesses located outside of the district. 

DID board member Mark Kauffman understood the merchants' plight, but doesn't want to kill the DSA as a result if the merchants association is gaining promises from DSA members to not renew their membership and switch organizations. 

"That's what I'm fearful of—the birth of your organization could be the death of their organization," Kauffman told Soto.

DID Board member Thomas Mannausa, who dissented on the vote, wanted to see a line item of $30,000 in the board's budget for marketing and to divide it as it sees fit, as a way to have some funds for the merchants association. The board also voted on that measure, but was deadlocked at 2-2, and failed. 

Ritz's concern was that the $99,000 in DID reserves ought to be kept in anticipation that the Main Street sidewalk improvements will include cost overruns and he does not want to ask the city for any more money.

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