Diane Creasy knew Lakewood Ranch would be a booming market to launch an interior design business when she opened the door to Epic Home Décor on February 9, 2020. But within weeks, the first reports of a coronavirus infection in the state of Florida surfaced at Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, less than nine miles away. “We opened just in time for a global pandemic,” she says.

A statewide lockdown shuttered the doors to her retail showroom a month and a half after she opened. But Creasy decided to persevere. Interior designers on staff continued to work with clients on the homes where many of them shifted their entire lives. And then, an unexpected thing happened. Despite a crashing stock market and layoffs across a range of industries, home construction continued and even picked up in and around the Ranch. When stores received clearance to reopen in May, Creasy found a pent-up demand to buy her goods and a growing number of newly relocated homeowners eager to shop. “For us, it’s been a better year, believe it or not,” she says. “Lakewood Ranch is just booming.”

Creasy isn’t alone. Nancy’s Bar-B-Q kept its doors open in Lakewood Ranch even as it had to shut its downtown Sarasota location down. Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie Lakewood Ranch now serves a full house with frequency. Light lockdown regulations, healthy income levels and a business environment that relies on local traffic all helped some businesses not only to survive a difficult 2020 but thrive.

The experience isn’t a universal one, of course. There are retail businesses reporting steep declines in revenue.

The Lakewood Ranch Cinemas at the other end of Main Street at Lakewood Ranch remain dark most of the time, the Sarasota Film Society still unable to justify the electricity bill from turning on projectors just yet. Both the Lakewood Ranch and Burns Court Cinemas closed down in December except to rent space for the occasional large event. Renee Baggott, CEO of the Sarasota Film Society, said the state of the industry nationwide will likely dictate when business returns to normal. Plans for the moment are to reopen with a full schedule on April 1, so long as there’s movies to screen.

“It’s based on when the pipeline of films is scheduled to release again,” she said. With luck, moviegoers in Lakewood Ranch will be crunching popcorn as Black Widow screens come May 7, more than a year after the Marvel film was originally supposed to hit theaters. But that’s just one of the many blockbusters stalled for months. Lower-budget independent films, where the theater actually gets to keep a greater percentage of each ticket sale, haven’t fared any better during a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still discourage crowds of any size, causing a 90 percent decline in revenue for the theater year-over-year.

She’s confident the theaters will bounce back, and that the Lakewood Ranch market will continue to see films. “The location we have on Main Street is a perfect location with restaurants so you can go to dinner and a movie,” she said. “It’s all a very safe, family-oriented environment.”

Others doing business on Main Street, though, have largely lost the faith. Jan Nicolson, owner of Wish Boutique, said her clothing store has seen traffic drop 50 percent from the pandemic. “We see trends change with the virus count,” she says. “When cases go up, traffic goes down.” The retailer kept her doors open in the immediate weeks after the pandemic first arrived in America, but when the first case on the East Coast happened to be a Manatee County resident, the buying public quickly disappeared. She closed the shop before Governor Ron DeSantis ordered a retail lockdown.

When doors could open for stores in Florida, Wish Boutique welcomed guests back, but there were few of them. A couple of employees quit, afraid of exposing themselves to the virus, and Nicolson decided not to replace them to save on revenue. Now, she fears Lakewood Ranch Main Street has it worse than shopping districts like The Mall at University Town Center. And the fact national retailers at the mall offer deep discounts on clothes that her boutique can’t afford puts all the more pressure on locally- owned shops. For 14 years, Wish Boutique called
Lakewood Ranch home, seven of those under Nicolson’s proprietorship. This March, the shop will relocate to Cattlemen
Road in University Park.

But other establishment owners feel more optimistic. Nancy Krohngold, owner of Nancy’s Bar-B-Q, shut down her original downtown Sarasota restaurant last year when professionals in offices started working remotely and stopped lunching out. But there remained a loyal customer base frequenting the Lakewood Ranch location that was opened in 2019. Her Lorraine’s Corner location boasts outdoor dining, so there’s a safe place to dine for those concerned about eating indoors. And guests can afford to eat out. “There’s a higher income of customers here,” she said.

The median household income for Lakewood Ranch, according to the US Census, is $89,430, compared to $61,683 for Sarasota County as a whole and $59,956 for Manatee County. And unemployment for the region in December sat at 4.7 percent, compared to a 6.1 percent unemployment rate statewide.

Not that there’s necessarily a shortage of customers ready to go out and enjoy what Lakewood Ranch has to offer regardless of the coronavirus. Alexandra Scott Simpson, operations and marketing director for the Tableseide Restaurant Group, said there’s enough customers with no trepidation about dining out to keep the 200-seat location for Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie at capacity frequently. “We are very busy up there and have beaten last year’s sales a few times,” she said. “The majority of our guests are comfortable, or they wouldn’t come out.

There’s been some industry-wide shifts in the restaurant world that local establishments feel with certainty. Simpson said about 35 percent of the business at Libby’s Lakewood Ranch these days comes from takeout orders. Pre-pandemic, it was 4 percent. But whether guests dine in or take boxes home, the restaurant benefits from a local fan base. While the original Libby’s location in Hillview relies substantially on tourists and out-of-town visitors, markets impacted by a significant decline in tourism last year, most diners in Lakewood Ranch live in the community 365 days a year.

That also means there’s a business community in place and providing consistent support. Dom DiMaio, president and CEO of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, said the organization has devoted much of its marketing efforts in the past year to spotlighting member restaurants and local shops, reminding patrons of the availability of takeout meals and curbside shopping delivery.

“As 2020 progressed, we found creative ways to have lunch delivered from a member restaurant during our Sandies event and began scheduling events with restaurants,” he said. “Since the pandemic began, we have hosted seven in-person Lunch with Ranchers’ events to drive business to local restaurants and we plan to continue this in the upcoming year.” That’s on top of 42 virtual education programs provided to make sure area businesses took advantage of such relief as the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Manatee CARES and other aid for small businesses. “The Alliance has fully supported local businesses and done our part in directing others to support local as well,” DiMaio said.

Creasy said she’s been thrilled by the local support, and she hasn’t needed any relief thanks to the healthy level of business and profit enjoyed by her store. Big-ticket, high-profit items like rugs and furniture pieces won’t stay on her showroom floor for any extended period. “There were times that were hard,” she said. “In April, we lost all of our retail business. But I was just amazed how fast the design jobs came and how much volume was needed.” LL