Newtown... Worth the Investment

Guest Correspondence

During his recent State of the City address, Mayor Willie Shaw called attention to the fact the City of Sarasota is experiencing its greatest building boom ever, following years of stagnation. While some have understandably expressed concerns related to the billion-dollar building boom, District 1 Commissioner Shaw has a unique perspective.

Commissioner Shaw was born, raised and has lived in the Newtown and North Sarasota community all of his life but for his service time in the military. As a former and long-time US Postal Service employee based in the city, Commissioner Shaw knows every street, alley and address in the City and many of the people who have occupied those addresses. 

Father to six children, as an African-American, Commissioner Shaw has also experienced living in a segregated community his entire life. As a segregated area, Newtown evolved to become a self-sufficient community as it strived to retain hope for a better life in a world rife with prejudice and discrimination, the side effects of which were high unemployment/underemployment and high incarceration rates.      

America's story played out here. With prejudice and discrimination came concentrated poverty, socio-economic and health care challenges which included the devastating crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s which severely impacted the Newtown community. The impacts linger to this day.   

Now, fast forward to Sarasota's billion-dollar building boom in the post-Obama era.  

Over the past three years, Mayor Shaw and I have had the opportunity to tour several of the new building sites under construction. We have lunched with hundreds of construction workers during topping off ceremonies when the project developers have provided lunch for the construction crews while inviting local officials to help celebrate the birth of a new building.  

When Commissioner Shaw attends these topping off events, he's happy to see so many people working. And 90 percent of his time is spent talking to laborers to learn where they came from, what they did, and how much their hourly wage is. Recent projects have included a notable percentage of Hispanic and African American workers.   

As a City Commissioner, Mr. Shaw is thrilled when he finds local workers on-site, especially African Americans. In Willie's Sarasota, every one of his neighbors and relatives always aspired to have a good job. It's never been easy over the years. The reality for many living in segregated communities was facing obstacles which at times made even securing a driver’s license challenging.

Newtown remains the community with the lowest identifiable per capita income, and the lowest property tax base in Sarasota County. Despite our progress, Newtown continues to be the most segregated community in Sarasota County, which has impacted education, employment, housing and quality of life opportunities. As Newtown confronted difficult challenges over the years, the rest of the city and county have flourished.

Yet, despite its socioeconomic and societal challenges, Newtown has always been a community rich in history, ingenuity, pride and hope.   

Like the Pinecrest Community of Central Sarasota County, Newtown has a unique history, unique needs and should be embraced and supported for its previous contributions, tourism potential and addressing current needs and opportunities. And now Newtown strives to make history again.

Newtown is now focused on economic development for the residents and friends of Newtown, while preserving its history, identity, its cultural identity and its housing stock.

With a recent focus on economic development, infrastructure and significant public housing improvements, Newtown partnerships are forging strategies to create a community that will experience an improved tax base, draw new businesses, jobs and customers.

It has been a long road, but momentum is picking up. From the first-rate academic and arts program at Booker High, to providing affordable housing such as Janie’s Gardens, providing access to affordable healthcare to residents at the new Sarasota Memorial Hospital Internal Medicine Center on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, to the potential for new job creation through film production at the new Ringling-Semkhor soundstages, to the upcoming redevelopment of the Newtown corridor at Fredd Atkins Park, to regional access to sports, recreation and fitness at the still new Robert L. Taylor complex, to the phenomenal work of the Newtown Historic Preservation Committee in preserving and presenting the rich history of Newtown, to the upcoming redevelopment of the Marian Anderson site, to the 25-percent reduction in crime over the past four years, Newtown is a wise investment.

So, after years of declining property values, increasing blight and high unemployment, Newtown and forward-thinking leaders are rightly focused on economic development, jobs, entrepreneurship and historical preservation. We now have a golden opportunity to keep the positive momentum building in the beloved community known as Newtown. The same tools used to revitalize downtown should be implemented to finally turn the economic tide toward positive economic development investment, growth, stability and the long-term sustainability of Newtown.

When we invest in Newtown it is a just and wise investment that will prove to pay great dividends in the years ahead.

Thomas Barwin is Sarasota City Manager.

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