On a postcard-perfect afternoon not long ago, I found myself on the rooftop bar at the 18-story Westin Hotel, looking around at a city in transformation. East of the placid blue bay, cranes and girders reached to join a skyline that includes seven new buildings of 18 floors, the top height allowed by the city.
It’s been dubbed “the billion-dollar boom”—“although it’s well exceeded that amount by now,” says Sarasota city manager Tom Barwin. Since 2015, the city has approved plans for 1,700 apartments, 1,400 condominiums and 1,000 hotel rooms. Those projects and ones to come are expected to swell the city’s population of about 55,000 people by nearly 20 percent—around 11,000 more people—over the next dozen years, and that does not account for the growing number of visitors and workers who now push the city’s daily population to 100,000 or more.
What is striking about the growth is its suddenness. Over the past 40 years, as much as long-timers might say that Sarasota changed, the city barely grew. While the county population more than doubled since 1977, swelling from 172,404 to 379,448, the city numbered 51,023 in 1977 and 54,641 in 2017. That puts its four-decade growth rate at 6.8 percent in a state where population soared by 172 percent over the same period.
But now Sarasota is having its moment. The growth spurt is partly attributed to qualities on which the city has long prided itself: the beaches and weather, of course, and an arts and culture scene—an orchestra, ballet, opera, museums, theaters and other jewels—that cities many times Sarasota’s size might envy. But other factors are also putting Sarasota on the map, including three thriving colleges and a burgeoning high-tech business climate that’s attracting entrepreneurs and other young professionals. And while home prices in Sarasota are rising, the median listing in the city at the end of 2017 of $334,900 was around $80,000 less than in its glitzy neighbor, Naples, according to Zillow.