A plan endorsed by the Newtown Community Redevelopment Agency Advisory Board and City Commissioner Willie Shaw for the City of Sarasota to buy a business containing the city’s only remaining bottle club was booted to staff for further study on Monday afternoon, May 21.
Shaw moved to start negotiations for the city to buy a four-plex strip mail containing the club, but he could not get a second to the motion. The property is located one block west of U.S. 301 at 1958 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
Two of the businesses on the property have received government grants for storefront improvements. Rick’s Pizzeria and the Social Club used $137,121 to replace the roof; get new trim, windows and doors; and repaint the exterior last year. After the work was completed, the property was appraised at $160,000.
Commissioner Terry Turner asked, “What if we used that money for code enforcement and law enforcement? Didn’t the storefront program address these problems?”
“If we own the land, we control the economics,” said North Sarasota Redevelopment General Manager Lorna Alston. “If we can get rid of the Social Club, it would be a better use of our money. And no, the storefront program did not.”
A staff memo and Alston’s testimony painted the Social Club as a hotbed of crime. The memo said the club was “at the center of criminal activity.” When quizzed by commissioners about the level of criminal activity, Alston searched through documents before saying city police had reported “13 incidents” in the first two months of 2012.
She also said the property was the last of its kind in the city, where patrons could go to drink after the bars closed down. By paying a small fee, patrons could become “members” of the bottle club. “It’s the only property in the city so zoned,” said Alston.
While Shaw was ready to get moving on acquisition of the property, the other four commissioners held back. Turner said his reticence was “a shortage of funds” by the city to buy additional property, a sentiment shared by Commissioner Paul Caragiulo.
“We need to do a little more work on this, to have it better explained and documented,” said Commissioner Shannon Snyder.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said, “We don’t know enough yet. What do we want to do with this property?” Staff was sent back to justify the purchase of a tax-paying, money-making private business.
During the evening commission session, an unlikely heroine emerged for the bottle club. Newtown activist and lay minister Valerie Buchand spoke during the “open to the public” session to defend the club. “This man runs a legitimate business. The individual owning the building is responsible for the inside of the building,” she said. “Citizens don’t have a complaint with the Social Club. But to destroy somebody’s character is a whole different ballgame. He has worked real hard to establish a business.”