“It’s becoming this emerging area for small businesses that are a little bit unique and hip and cool and just different.”
A new enclave of artists and small businesses is beginning to take shape on the eastern edge of downtown Sarasota.
Lured by rent more affordable than downtown and a collaborative atmosphere, the Limelight District is attracting artists’ co-ops and other retailers, the district’s creator says.
“It’s becoming this emerging area for small businesses that are a little bit unique and hip and cool and just different,” says Kim Livengood, owner of The Bazaar at Apricot and Lime.
The Limelight District has been loosely defined as the area along Lime Avenue, north of Fruitville Road, “to about 13th, 14th Street, and it kind of zigzags around,” Livengood says. But, proponents hope that will change as the district’s newly elected board more clearly defines its boundaries.
“The goal is to go a little bit bigger, just within the business district,” Livengood explains, noting that the residential area known as Park East is not technically part of the Limelight District. “We are the businesses inside Park East, and the mission is to encourage more creators, curators, artisans, makers—more small businesses—to come into this area.”
The Limelight District is one of the newest of 58 individual districts in the city. Being an official district in the eyes of the city has its advantages, says Steven Cover, the City of Sarasota’s planning director. Districts can apply for grants and an elected board can focus priorities, which can streamline requests to the city for services, such as infrastructure projects or zoning changes.
Cover says his department is excited about the Limelight’s prospects.
“We love their energy. We’re just as excited as they are about creating something special there,” he says. “And we’re going to do everything we possibly can to enforce and fulfill their vision because we think it would add a new dimension to the city.”
The Limelight Is Born
Livengood says she coined the name “Limelight District” in 2018, after seeing the success of the Rosemary District, which is north of Fruitville Road on the edge of downtown, adjacent to Tamiami Trail. “I got jealous of the Rosemary District. They were getting all this attention,” she says. “Everybody knew the Rosemary District and it’s fabulous what they’re doing over there. And I got jealous. I’m like, we’re just as cool.”
Anand Pallegar, an entrepreneur and major player in the development of the Rosemary District, says he’s excited to see what will happen with his neighbors to the east. “I think that the Limelight District is off to a fantastic start,” he says. “The assets that I’ve seen so far are tremendous.”
The city suggested Livengood organize other businesses in the area and apply to be recognized as an official district; that was accomplished in December 2019. The Covid-19 pandemic slowed progress, but the district has held membership meetings and recently officially elected a governing board.
An Affordable Alternative
Howard Davis is a developer who owns several buildings in the Limelight District. He saw the need for affordable spaces for artists to live and work.
“I was constantly being asked whether I had available artist studio space or space for creators and makers,” he says, “because the space we had here in Sarasota was disappearing, or rents were being doubled and tripled.”
One of those artists, Virginia Hoffman, owns a studio on Sixth Street. She says the city must do what it can to help the Limelight District thrive. “This is the last area for the city to get it right,” she says, to make certain it serves “a certain portion of the creative community that is not necessarily the high net-worth portion of the creative community.”
Affordability is key, Hoffman says. Artists who flocked to the Rosemary District a few years ago soon found themselves priced out of the neighborhood. “Rosemary District is high-end residential and fancy restaurants. There were art galleries in there, but they can’t afford to be there anymore.”
Davis says artists discovered the areas that became the Rosemary and Limelight districts at about the same time, but the two neighborhoods took different paths. Instead of new, large construction projects, the Limelight District is working with existing buildings, many of which have been there for decades.
Davis adds that the Apricot Avenue building that houses his office is 50 years old. Another of his properties across the street, which houses an artists’ co-op and the offices of the Community News Collaborative, is 60 years old.
“Buildings are available for renovation, smaller, more accessible,” he said. “It is growing very organically, a small parcel at a time rather than in a wave of large projects all at once.”
Lots of Work Ahead
A quick walk around the Limelight District reveals some obvious infrastructure shortcomings. “We don’t have good lighting,” Livengood says. “There are a lot of women here and they’re artists and they’re working in the evenings.”
“We could use some sidewalks. We flood,” she adds.
Davis agrees, adding that zoning is also a pressing issue. “We have zoning over here that’s really antiquated in terms of encouraging the kinds of positive developments that will help this neighborhood move forward,” he says.
Cover says he’s open to suggestions. “There have been some new ideas that have been brought up,” he says. “Nothing really formal. But we’re always open to meet and discuss any new ideas that they have there.”
Hoffman, whose studio is in an area zoned Light Industrial, would like to see rules that would allow residential and commercial uses in the same spaces to provide affordable housing.
“Then the people who want to do small businesses, the artists who are also small businesses, can afford to be in here because they can have a studio place to sell their art and a place to live,” she says. “To me, that’s what I’d really love to see happen.”
Cover says he’s open to that idea, though ultimately rezonings and changes in land-use plans are the business of elected leaders. “It’s certainly doable in the Limelight District,” he says. “It’s something that I know we’d like to see more of— not only the planning department, but also, I think, the [city] commissioners as well.”
Whatever happens, all agree it won’t be overnight. “There definitely would have to be some research done,” Cover says, “plus any improvement project would have to be included in our capital improvements plan. So it’s not it’s not something that can happen immediately.”
Pellegar says his experience with the Rosemary District taught him to focus on the long game. “That’s the tricky part. You’ve got to be patient and really be in it for the long haul. It’s not going to happen in one or two years,” he says.
Artists as Assets
While the vision for the Limelight District will support many kinds of small businesses, the focus on artists is by design.
“I think artists energize a city,” Davis says. “If you don’t have a collection of artists, your city is not complete, in my opinion.”
“I think it’s real important,” Cover says. “We’re a city known for the arts.”
Pallegar says the arts community plays a huge role in the evolution of a community, and the Limelight is just the next step.
“The Limelight District represents the artists’ next chapter,” he said. “If you think about cities as a whole, artists are often the catalyst to that creative gentrification, because they come in and they beautify with all the neighborhoods and, in turn, they raise the value of the neighborhood. And then they move on and do it again.”