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Venice MainStreet Helps Downtown Thrive

This local nonprofit has a mission for making our Historic Downtown vibrant and economically sound

Historic Downtown Venice today is arguably more gorgeous than at any time in its history. The avenues have been widened, the storefronts beautified, the walls painted with colorful and interesting murals, and the sidewalks filled with shoppers and diners. None of this success happened through chance, but is instead the result of tons of hard work by the City of Venice, the historic district’s business owners, local residents who have volunteered their time and treasure, and last but certainly not least, Venice’s very own community cheerleader and organizer, the nonprofit Venice MainStreet.

With a full-time staff of three—CEO Kara Morgan, Events and Partnership Coordinator Nick Sperry, and Community Engagement Coordinator Michelle Harm (pictured together in this month's Table of Contents), and an eleven-volunteer board of directors—Venice MainStreet has focused on promoting the charms of the downtown historic district since MainStreet’s founding in 1987. An accredited local chapter of a national organization that has more than 1600 members, Venice MainStreet’s mission is to focus on the revitalization, preservation and promotion of the historic center of the greater Venice community. The Downtown Historic District is now so lovely and vibrant, that it is easy to take it for granted. But it hasn’t always been that way.

“There were many years when downtown Venice was sleepy and dilapidated,” says Venice MainStreet’s CEO Kara Morgan. “Our mission has always been to change that.” 

Working under the umbrella of the Florida Main Street Program which itself is under the national Main Street America nonprofit organization, Venice MainStreet’s work is part of a movement that began in the late 1970s as mega malls were built near interstates outside of small towns, siphoning away business traffic. As people began shopping at the malls, thousands of town centers across the country fell into disuse and decay.

To turn the tide, Main Street America was formed in 1980 with a four-pillar mission based on the ideas of Economic Vitality, Design, Organization and Promotion. Local main street organizations like Venice MainStreet work to overcome economic slumps in historic downtowns at the grassroots level. 

“For the past 33 years, the people involved with Venice MainStreet and the City of Venice have done an excellent job of making our downtown thriving and vibrant,” said MainStreet CEO Kara Morgan. “Historic Downtown Venice is certainly not sleepy or irrelevant in Venice residents’ lives anymore. Historic Downtown Venice can now be considered the living room of the city. It’s alive with activity, and a central asset to all of us. People love spending their leisure time in the Historic Downtown and it is a major attraction for visitors. People chose to move to Venice because of the wonderful times they have downtown while on vacation. Our downtown is a treasure that we have all worked hard to build.”

Kara came to Venice from far northern Wisconsin, where she was born and raised. She graduated from Wisconsin’s Beloit College with a degree in education and youth studies, as well as art history. She began her career working in a number of Midwest history museums, including the Midway Village and Museum in Rockford, IL, before attending John Hopkins University, where she earned a Masters in Museum Studies. She moved to Sarasota County in 2007 based on pleasant experiences during family vacations to Siesta Key, and was soon working at the Ringling Museum of Art in their education department. She then became Deputy Director at Historic Spanish Point, before joining Art Center Sarasota as Development Director. Wife to husband Dan, who works in health care IT, Kara is mother to two-year-old son, Sean.

Of Venice MainStreet, Kara says, “We are a nonprofit that does community based economic development. We achieve our goals for downtown through promotions, special events, and historic preservation. Everyone here at MainStreet would like us to become better known to the wider community as the leading organization that produces community events. Before Covid, Venice MainStreet put on at least 52 outdoor events per year, all downtown. Covid restrictions hurt us very badly since we couldn't do anything we normally do in terms of events.” 

Despite Covid putting an anchor on Venice MainStreet events, Kara and her team have stayed upbeat and optimistic. “I have a five-year plan for Venice MainStreet that sees us growing both in recognition, and in budget and staff,” Kara says. “I’d like the community to be more aware that we organize the majority of outdoor events that happen in Historic Downtown Venice. Venice MainStreet has worked hard to create increased foot traffic.”

Among Venice MainStreet’s most notable achievements over the years was the preservation of the railroad depot, the building of the gateway arch sign, placing John Nolen street sign toppers, the intergenerational fountain, the information kiosk in Centennial Park, the recent mural on Nassau Street, and much more. The annual Easter egg hunt and Halloween parade are organized by MainStreet in tandem with the Lions Club. Recently, Venice MainStreet has partnered with the Atlanta Braves and Cool Today Stadium to throw ‘Kick Off To Spring Training’ block party celebrations downtown. More than 100,000 people attend Venice MainStreet events every year.

Venice MainStreet has more than 300 local business partners, all of whom are featured on the MainStreet website and in the Venice MainStreet printed directory. The website also features Venice’s most comprehensive calendar of events.

“When you see things change and become more vibrant downtown,” Kara says, “it's because of Venice MainStreet’s work. Covid has certainly negatively impacted us, but we will get through. After all, we were founded as an organization to help historic downtowns weather severe economic downturns. While we are hoping that people will donate to us—individual memberships are $35, families are $50—we also need people’s time and talents to truly thrive. Volunteers are essential to everything that we do and we welcome everyone who would like to help.”

101 W. Venice Avenue, Venice, Suite 23. 941.484.6722. VisitVeniceFL.org. Info@veniceminstreet.com

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