By Jim DeLa
Students got the chance to sit for an evening with city government officials to talk about civic engagement, and the rewards and challenges of being involved in the local community.
Sarasota City Commissioner Liz Alpert and City Manager Tom Barwin spent an hour with about 20 people in College Hall’s Music Room Nov. 13, answering questions ranging from the complexity of housing availability in downtown Sarasota, to why they love their work.
The event, part of the Campus Vote Project, was organized by the Office of Student Activities and Campus Engagement, and student government leaders. One of the organizers, political science student Alexandra Barbat, said the goal of the evening was to get students more involved, “to get them to realize how accessible it is.”
The panel discussion came a day after New College was recognized nationally for student voter registration and turnout.
Both Barwin and Alpert said New College has a role in the city’s plans for the future. Barwin said higher education is a big part of the fabric of Sarasota. “New College is vitally important to Sarasota. We tell people we’re a college town; some people still don’t realize that,” he said. “Hopefully we can get some research done here. Students who are interested in certain subjects could collaborate with us. We’d love people to consider coming to work for the city when they graduate, or even before.”
“I think about it a lot,” Alpert said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that we have five universities here along this corridor and it doesn’t seem like we have anything that’s beneficial to students, to make it easier to get around, more housing.” She added that in talking about economic development planning, there’s one topic discussed regularly: “How do we create jobs here so that students from all these universities will want to stay, and how do we create a situation where they can stay?
“My question for you is, what would you like to see from the city for New College students?”
That brought the conversation to the downtown area. Other cities, one student observed, have revitalized their city centers to attract younger people, while Sarasota caters to a specific class that’s above most college students’ means. “Are there any plans to make downtown more accessible for people who can’t afford to live in those condos?”
Alpert said she’d like to see more younger people in the downtown area. “I’d like to see more venues, where students and younger people would like to come. More activity, more events that are not just catering to the over-60 crowd.”
Barwin answered by saying Sarasota was no different that many other cities that experienced urban decline in the last half of the 20th century. He said in speaking to people who lived here 20 years ago, downtown Sarasota was “dead.” Now, he explained, there are close to 6,000 residents living in and around downtown, and, admittedly, housing there is expensive. “That’s true here. It’s true in most of our urban cores, whether it’s Boston, Philadelphia, New York, even Detroit today,” he said. “But those units provide a heck of a tax base that helps us pay for the rest of the services. And we’ve begun an aggressive program to improve our parks and recreational opportunities, and that’s free to everyone.”
Both city officials said working with local government and local issues is extremely rewarding. Alpert said she’s always felt the call to be involved. “I was the oldest of eight children. I’ve felt I was just supposed to be in charge,” she quipped. Local politics is interesting, they say, because it’s more personal. “People really see it affects their everyday life,” she told the audience. “I learn so much about my community. I love the fact that I can see the results of what I’m doing in my community.”
“If you love problem-solving, city government is the place for you,” Barwin added. “We get to see the good people, the community builders. It restores your faith in humanity.”
Alpert and Barwin encouraged students to participate. “I would start by signing up for the city’s weekly newsletter,” Alpert said. “Watch the notices for meetings, look at the agendas, see if something interests you.” She suggested volunteering to sit on one of the city’s boards. “There’s plenty of opportunities.”
“Just commit to being a good citizen, a good neighbor,” Barwin said. “Be open.”
— Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.