Sarasota has always had a reputation for housing America’s seniors.Whether it’s a casual mocking of “blue hairs” driving slow in the fast lane or Betty White in the “CSI: Sarasota” sketch on Saturday Night Live trying to figure out how a 103-year-old man can simply drop dead, the identity of the Gulf Coast as God’s waiting room has brought on plenty of laughs.But could the region’s skewed demographic actually generate dollars as well as chuckles? For more than a decade, a group of area leaders has tried to create a think tank on issues of elderly affairs. When the Institute for the Ages hired an executive director and formally opened in 2012, that idea appeared to manifest into reality. With promises of creating perhaps 800 jobs indirectly, hopefully by inspiring any company with a research and development division to open a satellite office in Southwest Florida, originators of the idea convinced Sarasota County to approve $1.2 million in economic awards and for local foundations to drop more than $900,000 on the effort. The concept seemed to become more fragile each passing year, and then the Institute showed signs of doom starting in late 2014. By the time an announcement was issued in February this year that the Institute would close for good, all involved were disappointed but none were surprised. So how did an idea that inspired so much hope lead ultimately to such discouragement? And will the promise of monetizing the concentration of the elderly ever come to fruition? 

Illustration by Chris Leverett.

Early Dreams

What would become the Institute for the Ages, though still without much form, began in the head of Art Mahoney around 2004. A former marketing executive who had owned two companies, Mahoney saw potential on the Suncoast for exploring the needs of America’s aging population. “I developed it as a concept and tried to get people interested in it, but it didn’t get any traction unto I brought it to Tim Dutton at SCOPE,” Mahoney said.

SCOPE [Sarasota County Openly Plans for Excellence], boasts a reputation in the region as the keepers of all important data about the county and its population. Tim Dutton, then-executive director for SCOPE, could see the potential of Mahoney’s idea. Census data collected in 2000 showed Sarasota County had the highest average age of any mid-sized county in the country, and neighboring Charlotte County had the highest age for any small county. 

Dutton started floating the idea in a variety of community workshops. In one major thought exercise held in 2008, leaders were asked to identify those attributes of Sarasota that showed the greatest potential, and the older population rose to the top. Efforts evolved from there as the specifics coalesced on how a think tank addressing needs of older people formed. “We ultimately engaged more than 1,000 people,” he said. Along the way, Dutton started championing the concept, and took it to the next level as he started to promote the idea of an “Institute for the Ages.” Dutton at the time noted that the nation as a whole had 13 percent of its population who were older than age 65, but in Florida than number was 18 percent, and in Sarasota County the figure was 30 percent.

“The rest of the developing world is aging. We’re just several decades ahead,” Dutton told SRQ at the time. “In the year 2030, the U.S. is expected to have 20 percent of its population over the age of 65. We’re already there.”

Internal documents from the time show the organization was worried early on whether Sarasota leaders would embrace a branding that stressed the region’s age demographics. “We have a fine line to walk here,” reads a memo sent to board members. “Some in the community are wary of talking about Sarasota County as an ‘Aging’ capitol. But please note… this whole subject is not about the fact that we are ‘old’ (we are). It’s about how one leading edge community (us) uses the assets we’ve got (old people) to develop an economic infrastructure that has sustainability and national reputation.” 

In short order, other institutions were drawn to the idea. Kerry Kirschner, then director for the Argus Foundation, said it was time to treat the aging population as a strength instead of a hindrance, and suggested the presence of healthy, active adults indicated the needs of aging Americans would quickly shift away from assisting the decrepit and toward empowering the aging. When the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County in 2009 released a five-year roadmap toward a brighter economic future, aging was spotlighted as a platform for economic growth, along with design and medical research. Indeed, the concept of the Institute pushed by SCOPE seemed to encapsulate all those needs. 

It had also become clear that the Institute was a big enough idea it couldn’t just remain a side project for SCOPE. “It became a daunting task,” recalls attorney Dan Bailey, who served on the SCOPE board around that time. The organization had done some demographic surveys, but would need experts to nail down the specifics of a plan. Money was raised to hire Research Triangle Institute researchers to back up these dreams with hard figures, and institutions including The Patterson Foundation rallied around the idea. Local foundations collectively promised $900,000 in matching grants should the Institute win more than a million in public funding, and in July 2011, Sarasota County Commissioners voted to award a $1.2-million package for start-up costs. “From a commission standpoint, it was looking at a huge community asset and trying to come up with a solution to our economic development issues,” recalls Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. “It also looked like a way to bring in companies and bring in youth who could work in technology and research.”

And while there was some debate about exactly how much job creation would come of it—Sarasota County Economic Development Director Jeff Maultsby took heat for estimating closer to 99 jobs would come directly through opening the Institute rather than the 800 or so imagined by RTI projections—the promise of economic stimulus won the hearts of a broad number of community leaders.

By August 2011, the Institute had over $2 million in grants and incentives approved for startup costs. But then came the heavy lifting.

Leadership Shift

The infrastructure for the formal Institute for the Ages would be formed in the coming months, but the biggest surprise would come as Dutton’s role lessened. It was announced a national search would be conducted for an inaugural executive director for the foundation. Institute chairman John Dart in April 2012 announced that Tom Esselman, a top executive at Hallmark, would lead the organization. 

It surprised some close to the process who figured the organization would tap someone with ties to the medical field, but Esselman’s credentials dealt specifically with many of the same things that the Institute was founded to explore. At Hallmark, Esselman rose to the position of director of New Concept Development, where he explored new technologies to use in the greeting card industry. “We were always trying to incorporate new ways to connect family members and close friends,” he told SRQ at the time, “and the biggest strengths and greatest demand for that tends to come from people who are older.” 

Mahoney said everybody involved with the Institute was impressed by Esselman during the interview process. The executive had a fascination with the needs of older Americans and saw the potential to reach beyond the obvious projects. “It was always an open question which part of corporate America would be interested in this,” Mahoney says. “You could make the case Big Pharma would be interested, but you could also make the case the construction business looking at what type of housing aging people wanted would be interested.” Mahoney thought Carnival Cruise Lines would be as interested in research on the elderly as would be Merck. But Mahoney became quickly discouraged at the direction the Institute would go under Esselman. By Mahoney’s account, the focus turned to squarely on tech companies developing cutting-edge products. “Seniors aren’t interested in gadgets,” Mahoney says. “They are interested in the human issues affecting them every day of their life, about their health and well-being, and the well-being of their children and grandchildren.”

Dutton also started to pursue other options. In June of 2012, he resigned as director of SCOPE. He would quickly turn his effort toward a new venture, Suncoast Community Capital, which he still leads. Dutton by his own account stopped having much interaction with the Institute, and had almost none after he took on a job with the Peace Corps that involved his spending more than a year is the Kyrzyg Republic helping nonprofits there. Past its inception, Dutton says he has little knowledge of how the Institute ran. But publicly, the Institute still showed promise. Esselman in October 2012 released a “100 Days Report” that showed promising relationships being developed with Intel, Sanofi and Stanford University. Intel One, of the biggest computer hardware companies in the world, would conduct research in conjuction with the Oregon Center for Aging Technology and with the Institute. 

The staff was expanded as well. Stacy Prouty, a Sarasota professional who had just finished up graduate studies, learned of the Institute and immediately saw its progress. She started at the company as project management director and rose quickly to the position of chief operating officer. In that time, she recalls promising projects that won positive attention from the business world. One of the first projects she pulled together was a trial for home monitoring technology from a company called Lively based out of Silicon Valley. “It was a tool to help connect older adults, particularly those with loved ones living out of the area,” Prouty says. The Institute rallied 30 Sarasota households to try the technology, and the feedback provided from testing the product in the field proved enlightening. “It was amazing how much the input from our community played into the resulting offering.” Testing showed what elements of the service initially would be useful and which would be nuisances. Prouty said even some of the suggestions made early that Lively executives were slow to embrace would be incorporated in coming years.

And the organization was lobbying the Florida Institute of CPAs to permanently move its annual Elder Services Symposium to Sarasota. A network of volunteers for studies and workshops was also being pulled together. 

Plymouth Harbor CEO Harry Hobson, who was involved with the Institute as far back as the visioning process and helped in developing a business plan back in 2009, knew the true asset in Sarasota for the Institute to tap was in its older populations. Plymouth Harbor would end up as one of about a half dozen senior communities where older Americans were “aging in place,” living independently but in environments that specifically handled the challenges of getting older. “We basically facilitated focus groups on what is important to older adults, what people should do and shouldn’t do,” he recalls.

Specifically, he remembers a time when Westfield executives came in to discuss what older consumers would want in a mall renovation at Westfield Southgate, and the focus group noted that while malls love shiny floors, the shoppers here would like them to be less slick to reduce the risk of falls. “A lot of things were suddenly presented with the eyes and voice of authenticity,” Hobson says. 

As the Institute needed focus groups, it would rotate from Plymouth Harbor to Kobernick House to Village on the Isle and so forth. For a while, it seemed plenty of interest was building up. The Institute boasted in late 2013 that it had more than 600 people registered on its “50+ Community Research Network” to provide a rich resource of focus group participants.

Around that time, the Institute also announced a new partnership with Kentucky-based InnovateLTC and with the Georgia Institute of Technology, an arrangement that had the potential to establish a regional paradigm on aging research. InnovateLTC, a for-profit arm, could get companies involved with academics at Georgia Tech while the nonprofit Institute in Sarasota would bring in seniors to act as lab rats. That synergy led to research like a Juvent trial exploring the impact of various dynamic motion therapies being studied.

John Reinhart, InnovateLTC founder and CEO, maintains that the Institute was among the best assets in the country for anyone working on aging issues. It provided what the private sector badly needed, a test market for products aimed at older Americans dealing with aging in a modern world. “Combining our core assets allows unprecedented opportunities for companies to accelerate their learning and path to market for emerging innovation solutions to improve the quality of life and quality of care for our rapidly expanding global aging population,” he said. And when a Sarasota delegation visited Louisville, Ky. this year for an intercity visit, Reinhart, whose company is still headquartered in that city, remained bullish on whether a concept similar the Institute could still work. “It was well intentioned, and even well-positioned,” he tells SRQ. “You have a robust, vibrant community that has a lot of people living well.” Sarasota seems the perfect place to study the best way for seniors to age in place, he says. But along the way, it was becoming more evident internally that the Institute was having trouble sustaining itself, and these partnerships, while promising, weren’t bringing enough to keep the Institute staffed and operational. 

Surprise Descent

Throughout early 2014, Esselman and the Institute were publicly optimistic about the organization’s importance to the local economy. A major conference was held in Sarasota that focused on “Positive Aging” and the Institute teased it could become an annual event to bring visitors and thought leaders in the field to Sarasota. But a second conference was never held. 

In July of 2014, news broke that most of the staff at the Institute was being laid off.

It was a bit of a jolt to the outside community, but one that those inside the organization worried was coming for awhile. Prouty says the Institute at its peak had eight staff members on the payroll, too many compared to the money coming in. “We didn’t have enough runway financially, and we didn’t figure out fast enough what the business model was that was going to work,” she says. The main goal, as far as personnel, was making sure the Institute kept up with the promises made to Sarasota County as far as hiring thresholds. Prouty wonders if the organization had grown at a more moderate pace if things might have turned out differently.

For what it’s worth, Mark Huey, executive director of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County, isn’t convinced that the hiring requirements had to be set in stone. Huey came on as the head of the EDC after seed money had already been awarded to the Institute, but he figures a startup nonprofit working with a major grant would have been granted the flexibility to change its business plan. “It would not have been unusual for leaders to say it would be prudent to change the plan,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been surprised for them to say we will approach things very differently than we originally planned.” But regardless, no change ever was discussed, and as the startup money began to dry up faster than investment money could materialize, the end came into view. By July 2014, Prouty says it was clear the funding wasn’t there to pay for staff. Fundraising efforts to supplement revenue came up short and the staff was eliminated.

Bailey says the board slowly began to see the market of companies eager to get involved wasn’t going to act as fact as the Institute needed them to. “It turned out there were not as many customers as the Institute had hoped,” he says. Esselman said the services being provided by the Institute would start to be farmed to different organizations. Rewired.Solutions, a company dedicated to connecting employers with older individuals bearing specific skillsets for jobs, would use the Institute database for that purpose. In February, the board of directors voted to disband the Institute completely with no plans to reopen the entity. “I’m extremely grateful for everything the community provided for the opportunity for the Institute to get started and find success,” Esselman told SRQ. “I am disappointed that it’s not moving forward, but things happen and you move on.”

Esselman said the organization ultimately faced the same obstacles as many startups, and that while the organization was focused on staying ahead of the research and ideas curve, it proved difficult to raise the appropriate level of funds. By the time of the board vote, Esselman moved back to Kansas City, where he lived during his Hallmark days. He continues to offer up his services as a consultant on senior issues, closely following senior care matters and regularly tweeting updates on the subject over social media, whether it be data points from new studies on the elderly or personal insight into the long-term ramifications of elder care in the U.S.

Prouty now works as director of sales and marketing for Kobernick Anchin Benderson, a nursing and rehabilitation care center located in Sarasota and focused on memory issues. She thinks the Institute ultimately was biting off more than it was capable of chewing. To truly have a successful think tank would require a network of at least 5,000 individuals, simply because while a trial may only require a dozen participants, the Institute always had more people declining to participate than accepting invitations.

Bailey doubts there will be the same appetite for something like the Institute if anyone pushes a similar concept immediately. “It was a valiant effort and unfortunately it didn’t succeed,” he says. “It was a great idea and it provided a valuable service to customers, companies and organizations, but they just weren’t willing to invest. The value is not there to sustain it long-term.”

Hobson wonders if the approach was flawed simply in that it didn’t attempt to make enough money on its own. If the Institute turned its focus on corporate support rather than philanthropy, it could have become self-sustaining. “I have always believed a for-profit model could work,” he says.

Reinhart, for his part, remains confident the idea could work if the Boomers populating Sarasota had a greater stake in the project. Many of what he calls “Boomerpreneurs,” aging entrepreneurs who still want something to do in later life, should have been encouraged more to invest in and use the Institute to make products and services useful to a market that reached well beyond the region. Rather than bringing in big dogs or incorporating out-of-market universities, more concepts need to be generated on the Gulf Coast. “Maybe the opportunity is there to ideate from within, and then for the talent there to explore ideas,” he suggests.

Huey notes than in many ways, the idea of the Institute is still alive and well. A new long-term plan for the EDC to diversify the economy called for exploring medical innovation, a field that encompasses some of the most promising aspects of what the Institute was originally supposed to be, but also broad enough that the EDC could bring in any number of corporate supporters.