“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.” George Washington Carver
He was born in Tampa and spent the rest of his life in Sarasota where he resides today. He remembers when Tamiami Trail was the only route north and south. When the tallest building was the Sarasota Motor Inn, now the municipal building next to Payne Park. When you could go to Horsefeathers, Foley’s and end up at Merlin’s for drinking and dancing the night away back in the 70’s.
He was voted “Most Talented” in the Class of ’75 at Sarasota High School. He was a musician and a magician. He played guitar, clarinet and sang in a chorus.
His first jobs were delivering newspapers on his bicycle for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and bussing at the Original Oyster Bar. Then he started working for his dad helping to make eye glasses in the family business that started at another location.
Today, some 30 years later, Ron is still working his ‘magic’ and applying his talents to run a successful family business, Soto’s Optical Boutique, with his wife Kim. Walk into the shop on Main Street and you immediately receive a warm welcome from J.R., the family dog – an adorable and amiable black lab. It’s a statement on the type of guy Ron is and it sets the tone for the family-friendly atmosphere. Ron appears to love dogs and people as he frequently was chatting with dog walkers outside of the shop. And he wants to be involved in making the downtown world a better place.
Hence, he’s in his fourth year as Chairman of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association (SDMA), when only one year is required. Some refer to him as ‘the mayor” and ask him to run for office. But he lives in the county, which prohibits his running for a city position.
During his tenure with SDMA, he’s addressed vagrant issues, parking problems, and now a moratorium on all events in 2017, catapulted by Thunder by the Bay, a motorcycle event that supports Suncoast Charities for Children.
“Sometimes I ask myself why I keep hitting my head against a brick wall,” Ron said, when asked how he deals with the controversy. “But people in downtown Sarasota have given me a good life. I want to give back…you gotta put some sugar back in the sugar bowl or it’ll be empty.”
He said he had a customer come in and say, ‘I have a bone to pick with you.’ She didn’t like that he supported Thunder by the Bay because of the noise generated from the bands mostly. So he proposed to move the stage next year. He also told her he doesn’t support Thunder, he supports the charity. He says there are a handful of people complaining – some merchants, some residents.
“The people that support it (Thunder by the Bay and other events) don’t say anything because they’re afraid to be ridiculed. And the squeaky wheel always gets the grease.”
Wondering why people would move to downtown knowing it’s a busy business district and with that comes some noise, Ron quipped, “Downtown Sarasota, love it or list it.” He said in his recent chairman’s letter that cities all over the country are trying to have events that draw business downtown, and that events are good for downtown.
Thanks to the Association and Ron’s efforts, we have twinkle lights in the oak trees that line Main Street. Christmas decorations and the largest, lighted new Christmas tree in the area. Multiple art, food, music and car events, and the free New Year’s Eve event, that draw large crowds to enjoy downtown and all it has to offer.
“When I first saw those lights in the trees…wow,” Ron said.
The homeless population presence downtown has significantly dropped with Ron’s idea of putting funds in boxes located in the downtown businesses rather than giving money to the homeless, who then buy alcohol and drugs with it.
“We have to continually educate people that when they give homeless people money, 93% of it goes to drugs and alcohol. It’s enabling them.” By funneling this same money into the boxes, that money goes to homeless charities that provide important services like shelter and food.
What does he think was the best thing that happened to downtown over the years?
“The Ritz,” he said, hands down. “It brought in an entirely new group of people.” Next, with $3 billion of downtown construction either completed or on the books, Ron looks forward to yet another new demographic – visitors. Hotels are popping up and it makes perfect sense.
“I’m an average Joe I think,” Ron says, “with typical habits.” He pointed out that when he goes to a city, he looks for a hotel that provides dining and shopping within walking distance. And that’s where downtown Sarasota is strong.
Ron has his sights set on eventually transforming his shop into a three-story live/work/professional space, even though ‘if the termites weren’t holding hands the walls would cave in.” But that’s another project and challenge he’ll deal with at another time.
In the meantime, he still sings and plays guitar, only now it’s in his backyard with his wife and dog by the fire pit. He goes ‘glamping,’ scuba diving and he and his wife ride Harleys. He keeps his sights set on the success of downtown Sarasota and his family-run business. And I’m particularly grateful to have met this man with vision.
Photos by Patti Pearson