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Drayton Saunders on Sarasota’s Future

by Gus Mollasis
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, our once-sleepy gulf coast was developed by visionaries named Burns, Palmer and Ringling. In the past forty years, you can include a visionary named Saunders, who has become synonymous with today’s real estate and development.
Michael Saunders, founder of Michael Saunders & Co. (MS & Co.), has not only defined an iconic real estate company, but is also a woman of incredible foresight, just like our early pioneers.

Today, her son, Drayton Saunders, president of the forty-two-year-strong real estate brokerage with 26 branch offices in three counties, handles many important and varied responsibilities of this well-known local, regional and international company. 

He is a man very much entrenched in the happenings of our town, not only through his role in his family business, but as a board member of the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County (EDC), Visit Sarasota County, and the Sarasota Bayfront 20/20 project.

As I talked with this hard-working, community-loving family man, and looked into his piercing blue eyes, just like his mother’s, I was impressed by his measured vision of our future, where it’s going and how it’s growing, as well as his respect for Sarasota’s cherished roots. 

When you meet a stranger, what is the first thing you tell them about Sarasota?

I like to ask them what they fell in love with first. I use that as a real estate practitioner and general fan of our town. I want to know what they are “in love” with. It tells me what someone with fresh eyes cues into. Is it arts and culture? Is it the beaches? There are always the big-picture things you expect to hear, but there are always those little things that you never know may turn somebody’s lens to make this their home.

Are you pleased with the path that Sarasota is on as it pertains to growth and development? 

That’s a good and fair question. Absolutely. We often in this community get into a debate about growth, and it’s a fair and healthy one to have. We should always be concerned with the direction of the community. I think that you must first accept that there is no way to prevent growth. In fact, if you look at communities that aren’t growing, there are so many symptoms of unhealthiness. Look at the devastation of the Rust Belt and so many other communities that don’t grow. They are in reverse. The great news about Florida and Sarasota is that we’re in a forward direction. It’s more a question of “how do you want growth to look?” You have to be fair and ask, “are we focusing on the core issues?” Or “are we focusing on a symptomatic outlier?” We often debate the thing that people get emotional about, without focusing on the long-term things that we ought to think through. I tend to think that if we spend more time in the “how do want to manage growth from a macro level?”, we would be better off than spending time with some of the minutia that sometimes occupies both the press and people’s hearts and minds. We all relate to things that we experience every day. The issues on Longboat Key are different than those downtown. We often regret the solution we didn’t put into place ten years ago. 

Is there something that you miss and would like to bring back from Sarasota’s past?

I would love to have circus performers back on Lido Beach. My mom talks about that, about going to the Lido Pavilion when she was a kid and watching the Ringling Circus performers practicing. I think that must have been the coolest and most unique thing to see. It’s not something that I grew up with, but something reminds of Sarasota’s rich history.

How do you balance your time between your roles at Visit Sarasota, the EDC and your daily duties at MS & Co.?

My primary responsibility is at MS & Co. I am on the board of the EDC and was the past chair of Visit Sarasota County. Part of being a real estate professional, whether you are sitting in my seat or Michael’s seat, or are one of the many people that are in this company, is that being engaged in our community is part of our job. In some ways it’s not extra, but both a privilege and part of what you sign up for when you become active and engaged. Early on I got involved in community and evolved into many layers. Visit Sarasota County provides great insight into what drives our tourism, which is often the front end of that future buyer. The EDC, on the other side, is what’s driving the underlying elements of our economy. We know that retirement, and certainly that demographic of retirees, is what drives a big part of the market. But when you look at the health of the economy, you can’t not look at how we are creating jobs for the future. My day is balancing schedules. But it is part of running a local company where you are “owning the community” and not just doing the job.  

What most excites you about Sarasota’s economic development and future? 

We often think of job creation as big game changers – like Amazon, for example. Whether that happens or not, who knows? When those types of developments happen, they can obviously shift the entire focus of our local economy. I think there are grassroots companies with 10 and 15 employees that grow to 20 and 30 that we really don’t hear about that are truly the strength of what the EDC does – the small business. Or the entrepreneur that starts off small and grows. I think that’s truly our focus. We pitch for those big projects and swing for the fences, but I think that “money ball” of base, runs and hits and growing to your strengths is what a strong EDC does. 

I think what’s most interesting to me personally is that we are an educational town. We are a college community wrapped in a retirement destination. How many communities have a college town at the heart of their community? They don’t. I think that energy, and building into that energy and growing it, is the focus of the heads of all those organizations. I think that is the most interesting long-term asset that we have for job creation. There is a trend for people moving back to their alma maters. I say that’s nice, but now you don’t have to move back to “snowmageddon.” You can stay here in your college town.

What are your biggest concerns or fears regarding Sarasota’s economic growth? 

Is our infrastructure keeping pace for the growth so that people have that sense of quality of life regardless of where they are in the community? As it becomes more of a challenge to move in and around the three counties that we were work in, you look at the quality of life. And some of that is long-term planning regarding things like transportation and thinking about the infrastructure we count on. That’s the hardest thing to know as laymen. Is the county on track? Is the city on track? And by and large they probably are. I think that if you ask what keeps me up at night, it’s that long-term planning. I think that things like the extension of the Legacy Trail is a good example. The debate could be “why do we need more?” Well, it’s not going to get any cheaper. And it’s not going to be any easier to do in the future. If you think about the benefit of something like that, that’s an example of planning for your future. 

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