The tremendous transition

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By Jane Bartnett

This is a tale of two neighborhoods.

As the Siesta Key region grows, two distinctly different shopping and dining centers that serve the area — The Landings Shopping Center and the Gulf Gate business district — are both experiencing a rebirth.

During the past four years, The Landings has seen a rapid and successful transformation. Benderson Development purchased the shopping mall on South Tamiami Trail in February of 2017 in a foreclosure sale for an undisclosed amount and, at that time, more than a dozen of the center’s 30 retail spaces were vacant.

The luxury shopping center built in 1988 had lost its luster and the 2008 real estate crisis had left its mark.

As the new owner, Benderson began to implement an extensive renovation effort that is still underway. According to the company’s director of marketing, Julie Fanning, Benderson invested heavily in bringing The Landings back to its original luxury standard.

“We began with facade renovation, new lighting, landscaping and parking,” she said, “all to raise the center to our first-class standards.”

With approximately 150,000 square feet of retail space with which to work, Fanning reported that Benderson has “added nearly 20 new tenants since purchasing the mall four years ago.”

She said that the company also created one retail space by splitting a large one into two areas, bringing the total spaces to 31.

“Today,” she reported, “we are almost at full occupancy.”

The Publix store, situated at the north end of the center, is owned by the grocery giant and was not a part of the 2017 sale. 

Fanning credits The Landings turn-around that was completed in a relatively short period of time to the real-estate firm’s “very careful” tenant selection.

“We look for a good blend of tenants that will benefit each other and meet the needs and interests of the community,” she said.

Noting the recent arrival and success of the Tripletail Seafood & Spirits restaurant, a Gecko’s Hospitality Group property, and neighboring Big Olaf’s Ice Cream as an example of complementary businesses, she said that the two opened within a short time of each other.

Fanning also cited the success of the Lily Cafe that opened in early June, next door to Publix, as another strong success story. During its first week in business, the cafe had what Fanning called an “exceptionally strong opening.”

Miss Jody’s School of Dance and Dog Perfect are neighboring shops.

At the center of The Landings, the new EOS Fitness Center — a national entity with more than 75 locations in Florida, Arizona, Utah, California, and Nevada — now stands as a major presence with just more than 38,000 square feet of space.

Steven McKee, EOS’ regional VP for fitness for Florida, anticipates a late July opening for the 24-hour facility that features a 22-yard pool, a “kids club,” weight rooms, a yoga studio, and additional amenities.

“The Landings was the right fit for EOS,” said McKee. “Sarasota has been on our radar for some time and The Landings offered the right mix in a very trafficked area.

“The Landings is in a beautiful area. It fits our demographics and offers a good view from the street.” 

Additional Landings entries set to open this summer and fall include the Vampire Penguin dessert shop known for its shaved ice treats; Rain Noodle House restaurant featuring ramen, stir fry and other Asian specialties; and 100% Chiropractic.

The Landings Travel agency and the Corkscrew Deli are both original Landings tenants.

The former Sweet Tomatoes buffet-style restaurant space, Fanning reported, vacated after parent company Garden Fresh Restaurants filed for bankruptcy protection. The space, she said, will have “a special new tenant coming in the near future that will be very unique to Sarasota.”

Gulf Gate is also hot

Meanwhile, only 2.2 miles south of The Landings sits the Gulf Gate Business District. A collection of approximately 150 small shops, restaurants, bakeries, bars and markets, the business community prides itself on its diversity of small businesses.

Bordered by Mall Road and Gulf Gate Drive with Superior and Gateway avenues running perpendicular between them, the district has seen dramatic changes in recent years as many new restaurants, shops, bars and lounges opened, giving the entire area a bright new appearance.

“Gulf Gate is becoming more sophisticated,” said Gulf Gate restaurant and bar owner Mark Rosato. “We’ve hit the map.”

A successful restaurateur who has witnessed drastic changes in the once sleepy area since re-locating to Sarasota in 2005 from the New York City suburbs, Rosato is excited about the many new positive changes coming to Gulf Gate.

“We’re now seen as our own entity and we are important to the local community The local people are our bloodline,” said Rosato, who owns the new Moondoggy’s surf-themed bar and ZuZu’s live-music-inspired cocktail bar. 

“We were always a stepchild to Siesta Key but we’re coming alive and we have many more years of growth. Gulf Gate is now being taken very seriously,” he said. 

When the upscale Brine Seafood and Raw Bar, opened alongside Rosato’s businesses earlier this year, he feels that collectively the three businesses acted as a face-lift for the entire street and brought a dramatic new burst of life to the business strip.

“Brine helps us and I think we help them,” said Rosato, speaking of the way businesses complement each other.

He also noted the popular Off the Hook restaurant and the much-anticipated Opus restaurant as other examples of the neighborhood’s growth.

“People want more quality and higher selections. That is what we are seeing,” Rosato said.

Increased traffic to all three businesses also benefits the unique neighboring shops that include the French L’ Opera Bakery Bistro, the Scandinavian Gift shop that was featured in Martha Stewart’s Living magazine, and Welden’s Jewelry & Antiques.

Now, a varied collection of shops, businesses and ethnic restaurants line the streets. One of Gulf Gate’s most novel business concepts is Your Culinary Place, situated behind a brightly painted white storefront on Superior Avenue.

It features more than 4,000 feet of commercial space consisting of four kitchens that it shares with those who rent it. Chef Gordon Lippe runs the operation.

One of the small food businesses that has found success in the space is Bootsy’s Pot Pies & Other Good Stuff. Here, award-winning Chef Frank Imbarlina sells his celebrated pot pies on order.

Food-truck owners and “ghost kitchen” restaurant owners (where the food is prepared off site) also benefit from Your Culinary Place.

Such steps forward required perseverance. Following the 2008 housing recession, the area recovered slowly. In 2017, local businesses came together to establish a non-profit Gulf Gate Area Merchants Association. Yet, despite the efforts of a small group, it did not survive and is currently listed as inactive.

Made up primarily of businesses that lease their space, the entrepreneurial community nonetheless made it through the pandemic.

This, Rosato said, “shows the dedication of the people here in Gulf Gate.”

Today, a drive through the streets of Gulf Gate shows only one visible vacancy sign on a door and one space under construction.

Meanwhile, during the past six months, five new restaurants and bars have opened their doors. Beyond Brine and Rosato’s businesses, Dix Coney Cafe, Roman SQ, and Seabar have arrived.

Finally, a nod to Gulf Gate’s progress can be found from Visit Sarasota, the county’s tourism promotional arm. It calls Gulf Gate “a hidden jewel in south Sarasota.”

And this summer, as part of the county’s Neighborhood Improvement Program, the area can look forward to smoother roads, curb and sidewalk improvements.

Jane Bartnett
Author: Jane Bartnett

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