Engaging the Young Professional

Under The Hood


Legendary consultant Andres Duany never composed a city plan without courting some controversy. That’s partly because his big-picture vision for communities extends beyond setbacks and parking requirements. During an interview I conducted seven years ago with Duany, around the 10-year anniversary of the Sarasota Downtown Master Plan he helped craft, his boldest suggestions for the future weren’t about urban transects or height restrictions but about engaging younger generations.

“The best places are great because the young people say ‘We own this place,’ ” he told me. “You have got to let the young people run Sarasota.” He went so far as to suggest the city commission’s make-up be determined not be geographic districts but by age group, with seats dedicated for commissioners in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s. “Those in their 70s and older don’t matter anymore. They should just go home and have a good time. Government is about the future.”

I wonder how much longer Duany, 67, will sustain such a view, but his assertion interested me then and fascinates me now. It seems especially relevant during a renewed effort to get young professionals involved in civic affairs. SRQ Media Group’s first SB2 Rumble, a modified Oxford-style debate scheduled this Tuesday at the Powel Crosley Estate, explores the question “Has Our Region Failed Our Young Professionals?” Earlier this month ago, Sarasota Underground hosted a well-attended City Commission forum aimed at putting a younger spin on city dialogue. Of course, the real test of whether young people themselves will raise their own voice when it comes to city business comes March 14 when voters decide who should fill two city commission seats.

Frankly, history doesn’t deliver a great indication young voters will step up. The last time a city election was held, in May 2015, Sarasota voters under the age of 40 had an abysmal 2.82 percent turnout. By comparison, voters over age 70 boasted a turnout of 38.28 percent. In raw numbers, that means voters over 70 outnumbered under-40 voters 3,114 to 258. You can see who owns the place and who decided to go home and have a good time.

So why does this happen? In so many ways, the task of engaging younger voters appears daunting. Not only were young voters outnumbered 10-1 last bout, but the unseasoned set has its own challenges. Seniors living full-time in Sarasota, an enormous number of whom are retired, have largely decided to make this community home until they die. Meanwhile, many 20-somethings remain in the early stages of their careers and see the future drawing them elsewhere.

Yet, Sarasota may be the best place in the Gulf Coast region for young professionals to take control. A little known fact, registered voters under 40 outnumber those over 70 in the city. That’s starkly different from countywide figures or places like Venice and Longboat Key. Young people tend only to get involved when limited issues enter the public square. But don’t expect elected officials to worry about a noise ordinance silencing your midnight concert or event restrictions shutting down your favorite Millennial-led festival downtown if your grandparents are the only ones in your family who can name a city commissioner.

Duany’s idea of a perfect commission can’t really be done. And considering the 70-plus set seems so engaged, it would be a bit undemocratic to do something like it here. But if young people want to take ownership of the city, there’s an easy solution. Show up on March 14. Then again for the runoff in May. And don’t let politicians think this demographic will ever stay home for a city election again.

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