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Sarasota Mayor Kyle Battie talks about the future of his booming city

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Kyle Battie
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Kyle Battie, Sarasota City Commission

A Sarasota native, Battie shares how Sarasota is rebounding from the pandemic's economic squeeze and how a building boom is changing the city.

This week on Florida Matters, we spoke with Sarasota Mayor Kyle Battie in the second half of the show.

Development is transforming Sarasota's downtown skyline, and one of the challenges is how to accommodate growth while protecting the environment, providing affordable housing and preserving Sarasota’s artsy identity.

Battie, who won election to the city commission in District 1 in 2020, was chosen as mayor in November.

Below is his conversation with host Matthew Peddie. You can also listen to it by clicking on the “Listen” button above.

You grew up in Sarasota, you went away for your work, and then came back. How much has changed in the time that you've been away in New York, Miami and then sort of coming back?

A lot has changed. Coming back to Sarasota, it wasn't the Sarasota that I left. But in the times that I would come back to visit, I can see the gradual change in the city and see it growing a little bit. Even in the 10 years that I've been back. For some people it’s in a good way and some people, in a not so good way. So it's just a matter of perspective.

Yeah, that's kind of the story of Florida, isn't it? There's so much migration into the state that there's nowhere that hasn't changed pretty profoundly in the last decade or so.

The pandemic brought that on quite extensively with everyone coming from the north and from the Midwest. Sarasota, in particular, as I can remember it growing up and when I first got back to Sarasota, a lot of the migration would come here from the Midwest for the most part and the Northeast. But now Sarasota is on the global map and people are coming here from all over the world. And it's been recognized as a great place to live, great quality of life. So, of course, people want to gravitate toward a place where they feel that they can be fun.

How would you say, the residents and businesses of the city of Sarasota are doing nearly three years after the start of the pandemic?

I'm out quite a bit and amongst a lot of shop owners, business owners, restaurant owners, bar owners downtown, they told me that they've had record numbers, particularly this past October, even in November. I was speaking to somebody that said they had a record day or evening during the holiday parade. I spoke to another business owner and they said that they had a record breaking night on Halloween. It just speaks to where the city is growing and the direction that it’s headed, becoming vibrant, particularly downtown. We don't have the land mass that they do in in the county. A lot of the development here in the city is mainly redevelopment, taking something that was once viable, now dilapidated and not really of any great use and turn it into something viable or of use.

Well, let me ask you about development. There are some pretty big projects underway or being planned, to your point, in downtown Sarasota. You've got One Main Plaza, for example. I believe there's a proposal for a 16-story building at the corner of Main St. and Goodrich Ave. And then you have the Park district near U.S. 301 and Fruitville Road. These are kind of transformative projects. How do you see them changing the landscape and the life of Sarasota?

Immensely. The Park district over on Fruitville, there's nothing over there. We're trying to do the best that we can to accommodate affordable housing in that area where there's really nothing. We're looking at that type of development. And that will bring a great deal of activity over in that area.

And as you are speaking of, right at the corner of Main and Goodrich, it's going to be over 400 apartments. There'll be mixed use there with restaurants and shops that will transform that end of Main Street, which doesn't get as much love, if you will, as the other end of Main Street. So that then will create a generate a lot of activity and a lot of energy down in that area. So that will be transformative.

And I mean, think about the fact that you'll be able to have dinner at the end of Main Street and if you wanted to take a stroll all the way down to the other end of Main Street, there'd be some type of activity and life. So I think that's great for the city. That's great for any growing city. And Sarasota is no longer the small beach town that it used to be.

So on the notion of this beach town, and you're kind of talking about how Sarasota has a pretty different future from what it's been like. It’s had this kind of quirky, slightly off, arts and culture reputation.

How do you make sure that you don't lose some of what makes Sarasota unique in amongst this flood of new development and building out? How do you preserve some of the identity of Sarasota as you move forward?

That's an interesting question because I know upon moving back to Sarasota, I felt as though a lot of what was Sarasota when I left wasn't the same. You had new buildings, and so on.

And the thing that made Sarasota, Sarasota and gave its vibe was the cross winds, the breeze coming off the water and just making its way through the city that just gave everybody this kind of just beachy attitude. And I think that energy is not the same as it as it once was because you have a total different influx of people here.

So, of course, it's our responsibility as commissioners and mayors and vice mayors to try and make sure that that Sarasota doesn't sort of lose its character. But you can put all the buildings that you want, you can put all the traffic that you want, you can take away all the traffic that you want, you can take away all the buildings that you want. At the end of the day, it all comes down to people. And that's like anything. People make a home, people make a neighborhood, people make a city. And that's what will help Sarasota maintain its identity and its character.

As the population grows, as more people move to Sarasota, you have some new opportunities too. You had an interview recently, with ABC 7. You talked about bringing an ice rink and maybe a semi pro hockey team to Sarasota. Are there real plans to do that? Is this a real viable thing that Sarasota could have in the near future?

Yes. Matter of fact, I'm working with the hockey team and the Vennetti group right now. They're 'demo-ing' the old Stardust skating rink and they're going to keep the name and keep with the nostalgia job of that and retrofit it to an ice rink or hockey rink. So that's going to happen. They're working diligently to try and get that going.

And we're in talks with IMG Academy as well to possibly bring them on board and have hockey be a part of their program, which they once had and they want to reintroduce it.

And we're looking at other opportunities and trying to attain more land so that they can put in an indoor volleyball court, indoor basketball court, possibly indoor soccer and a wellness center. So we want to try and create a whole sports complex right here in Sarasota. Not to the scale and to a size of IMG, but something to that degree.

Mayor Battie, I want to ask about the affordable housing part of the piece too because a lot of these developments, there are some pretty high-end apartments going in there. And you've talked about incorporating some affordable housing. But how do you make sure that folks who don't have the means aren't left behind in this kind of onrush of development?

That's a moving target that we're trying to nail down. It’s a bit fluid.

But we have to make sure that we work in partnership with the developers to accommodate for affordable housing. That's why we did the zoning that we did. And we want to make sure that the people that work in this city can actually live here as well.

There's no reason why the city should be for the super rich. Everyone should be able to live anywhere and everywhere in the city. In the urban core of the city, we should be able to amass some degree of affordable housing. And that's what we're working toward. We have to be very serious about taking care of that situation.

Hi there! I’m Dinorah Prevost and I’m the producer of Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show. That basically means that I plan, record and edit the interviews we feature on the show.
I am the host of WUSF’s weekly public affairs show Florida Matters, where I get to indulge my curiosity in people and explore the endlessly fascinating stories that connect this community.