City economic development director resigns

Photo by Norman Schimmel

Randy Welker handed in his resignation on Friday, June 8, ending a 14-month run on the job. “It’s for personal reasons,” he told the Downtown Improvement District (DID) board on Tuesday, June 12.

Welker was hired jointly by the City of Sarasota, the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Improvement District in March 2011. His two priorities were bringing a pharmacy/drugstore to downtown and putting a hotel adjacent to the new Palm Avenue parking garage.

The day he resigned, the Floriday hotel proposal was accepted by city staff. Meanwhile, discussions are in progress to put a drug store in the first floor of a multi-story parking garage on State Street.

Welker said he is leaving to spend more time with his wife; he did not relocate to Sarasota. He previously served for six months as the business development manager for Martin County, and for two years before that, he was the executive director of the Citrus County Economic Development Council.

Welker said he left a report behind with the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, but he did not offer a copy to the Downtown Improvement District during the Tuesday meeting. He did talk about some of his recommendations, nonetheless.

“We have to increase [the number of] residents downtown,” he said. “You need 2,500 new residents in the next five years.”

He noted the city’s two principal shopping districts – downtown and St. Armands Circle – are changing, and the city needs to recognize that. “The customers at St. Armands are not necessarily from Longboat Key anymore,” he said. “Their market is now downtown.” He noted a migration of Longboat Key residents to downtown Sarasota.

“If you live downtown, you have everything you want, and you can walk to it,” said Welker. “Your focus needs to be growing [the number of] residents.”

He suggested focusing on the Rosemary District north of Fruitville Road, increasing population density with smaller units in buildings of limited height.

His advice for North Tamiami Trail development, he told the DID, is for the city to purchase troubled properties. “You have a few properties that are the cause of most of the problems,” said Welker. “Buy them up and create a linear park. Then you can think about economic development.”

And he suggested an “accommodation tax” paid by restaurants, to raise revenue for a downtown trolley and maintenance of parking garages. “This is not so much about recruiting business. It’s doing the other things to accommodate the next three years,” he said.

Welker noted existing downtown developers are the best recruiters for new businesses. He said, “Between Castro, Benderson and the Isaacs, you have great recruitment,” referring to three prominent firms with operations in the area. What’s missing, he said again, are the customers. “We have to increase residents; that’s the real reality,” he said. “The downtown market is based on the residents.”