Sarasota wins title 'best little city' in U.S.
posted 11/13/00

By Margaret Ann Miille

Money magazine has named Sarasota the best little city in the nation.

In its December issue of best places to live, the monthly publication touts Sarasota for more than its sun-drenched beaches and balmy weather.

Money noted the city has its own symphony, ballet and opera companies, is home to the Ringling Museum of Art and is within an hour of Tampa Bay and its Buccaneers professional football team.

Though the article never mentions Manatee County, it is clear from the statistics cited by Money writers that Sarasota's northern neighbor is included.

The quoted numbers, such as a population of 530,900, describe the Sarasota-Bradenton Metropolitan Statistical Area -- statistician jargon for the area that includes population centers surrounding Bradenton and Sarasota.

Regardless of what the statistics describe, economic developers in Sarasota plan to make the most of the designation, which reaches a large national audience.

Kathy Baylis, vice president of the Sarasota County Committee for Economic Development, said making the Money list will help the city overcome its reputation as a destination solely for retirees and tourists.

"This is just another thing to help us build an image outside the community," she said.

Baylis also expects employers recruiting in a tight labor market to use it as a marketing tool.

Money writers described the lifestyle in the Sarasota area, where the median home price is $126,000, as affordable. The magazine mentioned that the area's job growth last year reached 5 percent and is projected to increase by 30.5 percent during the next decade.

In focus groups led by economic development experts in Sarasota and Manatee counties, technologists said they chose to move to the area because it was an ideal place to raise families.

"They are looking for smaller, quaint, and not so crowded places," Baylis said.

A diversification of business sectors beyond retail and services is also attracting younger workers and creating higher-paying jobs, she added.

Alan Mirabella, assistant managing editor at Money, said Sarasota won its designation by topping about 24 other cities with populations less than 250,000.

Criteria included job growth, quality of life, education, economy and home prices.

"This year we focused on cities that are managing their growth very well," he said. "We looked at cities that are not yet overcrowded, that are not spoiled by things like gridlock. We talked to dozens of people in each of the cities, and we got the sense that people who live in Sarasota really like it."

Mirabella acknowledged that the Money rankings can be controversial, recalling the ire raised last year when New York and San Francisco were named the best places to live.

Others have quibbled with the magazine's methodologies, which it has admitted are not necessarily meant to be a scientific or statistical approach.

This year, the No. 1 choice among 300 of the country's largest metropolitan areas is Portland, Ore.

Regional winners are Providence, R.I., in the Northeast; Chicago, in the Midwest; Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, in the South; and Salt Lake City, in the West.

Other rankings include lowest violent crime rates, highest home prices, and most single people -- a list on which Gainesville was named No. 2.

Besides the national and regional winners, the magazine named seven other five-star cities: Austin, Texas; Bloomington, Ind.; New York City; Phoenix; Rochester, Minn.; San Diego, and San Francisco.