Voelker reappointed while Shugar wins first term on Sarasota Downtown Improvement District Board

City Commission unanimously approves the pair

Chris Voelker. Image from her Facebook page

With unanimous decisons this week, the Sarasota City Commission approved the reappointment of restaurateur Chris Voelker to the Downtown Improvement District (DID) board and then the appointment of a new member, Ronnie Shugar.

During the commission’s regular meeting on Dec. 4, City Auditor and Clerk Shayla Griggs pointed out that the terms of both Dr. Mark Kauffman and Voelker were due to expire this month. Kauffman had not sought another term on the DID board, she added, while Voelker had.

Voelker won her first term on the board in March 2021. She is the owner and operator of the State Street Eating House + Cocktails. Commissioner Kyle Battie nominated her for her first term, noting at the time that he once worked for her. Then-Commissioner Hagen Brody added that he believed Voelker “would bring a very fresh set of eyes, a lot of energy, a lot of great ideas. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have someone on [the DID board] who runs a restaurant, who runs a bar … Her bottom line is affected by [the downtown] environment …”

The Agenda Request Form for the Dec. 4 commission meeting item explains that each member of the DID board “shall be a non-residential property owner subject to ad valorem taxation within the District.”

As noted on the city’s website, the DID’s “Board of Directors’ general purpose, powers, functions and duties of the District will be to improve the Downtown Core of the City of Sarasota.” The board has five members who serve three-year terms.

Along with Voelker and Shugar, the other members are Wayne Ruben, who is in his third term; Eileen Hampshire, who is in her fourth term, and Harmoni Krusing, who is serving her first term.

On Dec. 4, Commissioner Erik Arroyo, who was participating in the session via virtual meeting technology, first nominated Voelker for a second term on the board.

“I agree with that,” Commissioner Battie responded immediately.

With no other nominations made, Griggs sought consensus on the nomination. No commissioner objected to it.

Then Commissioner Debbie Trice nominated Shugar.

Battie concurred with that decision, as well, as did Mayor Liz Alpert.

However, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said she wanted to nominate John Harshman.

Without consensus on the second appointment, Trice made a motion to appoint Shugar, and Battie seconded it.

Arroyo told his colleagues, “This is one of those [decisions] that was so difficult because, for example, Michael Donato [another applicant] owns numerous businesses. He’s a merchant. He’s a property owner in downtown Sarasota, I mean, of numerous blocks.”
At the same time, Arroyo continued, “John Harshman has been a staple of this community for decades. … [He] understands the history.”

Arroyo then noted that Shugar “is a great one. He came to Sarasota from California and started investing in businesses and real estate. If you look at what [he] has done … in that block that he owns on Palm Avenue, it’s truly phenomenal.”

Shugar’s application said he owns the property located at 46 Palm Ave. and 127 S. Pineapple Ave.; the latter is on the lower level of The Mark condominium complex. Additionally, the application included a note about his owning three units standing at 1717 Second St.

Shugar “also [is] the one that brought about the Le Petite Brasserie (127 S. Pineapple Ave.), the champagne and restaurant piano bar right by the [Paul Thorpe Jr.] park there,” Arroyo pointed out.

Shugar wrote in his application that he is the co-founder of the nationally based personal care company Raw Sugar Living, which — he added — is the “largest natural brand of consumer goods sold nationwide.” In both Los Angeles and Sarasota, he continued, he has been a developer of homes and commercial properties.

Donda Mullis and Ronnie Shugar are the founders of Raw Sugar Living. Image from the company website

In reply to the question about why he wanted to serve on the DID board, Shugar wrote, “to bring my experience and first hand knowledge of a seasoned commercial real estate developer to help improve the community of Sarasota.”

Plaudits, too, for other applicants
All of the applicants, Arroyo said, “would do a great job. … I think all of them have a vision.”

“I feel the same way,” Ahearn-Koch added. “I was leaning towards Mr. Harshman because of his institutional knowledge,” she explained. “I think it’s very important to have somebody who’s been around in the city for decades and seen the changes of where we were, to where we are, and to where we’re going.”

Harshman would bring a unique perspective to the DID board, she pointed out, because he is “a service provider.”

In his application, Harshman wrote that he has been a commercial real estate broker with a downtown Sarasota office since 1982. He established Harshman & Company in Sarasota in 1989, the firm’s website says. It stands at 1575 Main St.

John Harshman. Image from his company website

In response to the application question about why he wanted to serve on the DID board, Harshman added, “My tax dollars help fund the DID and I would like to participate with other DID Board members in deciding how the funds are allocated.”

Regardless of her support for Harshman, Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues, “Mr. Shugar will add a lot to the board should he be appointed.”

Trice said she appreciates the value of institutional knowledge, but “We do have members of the DID who have that institutional knowledge that are continuing. So my thought was, let’s bring in some new thoughts, some new ideas to work with those who have been here for quite a few years.

“I agree,” Alpert responded.

“I was going to pretty much echo the sentiments of Commissioner Arroyo,” Battie said. All three of the other candidates would bring value to the board, Battie continued, “particularly Mr. Harshman and how long he’s been, you know, a member of downtown, and Michael Donato, young guy, owns a great deal of property downtown and his vision and his, you know, his verve and his energy that he brings.”

However, Battie added, Shugar has been “persistent in wanting to get on the DID,” and he would bring “a perspective, particularly from, like, say, coming here from California — that would be of value to a downtown in way of this vision and where we hope to go.”

As for Donato: His application noted that he owns property located at 1312 and 1316 Main St. In response to the question about why he wanted to serve on the DID board, he wrote, “My family and I have a vested interest in Sarasota not only as property owners but also as residents of the area for over 20 years. I’m also involved in many development projects that we hope will shape the future of the city.”

When Griggs called for the vote, Shugar won his seat unanimously, as well.