Sarasota Ranks #2 on Best Places to Retire List

Herald Tribune  /   Barbara Peters Smith   / November 2, 2015


Sarasota has been riding high in the rankings of desirable places to live for the last few years. Now we can add “second-best place to retire” to the trophy shelf, courtesy of Livability. com — a website that slices data on small-to-medium-sized cities in a bunch of different ways.

Like the No. 1 contender in the retirement category — Santa Barbara, California — Sarasota has beaches and water and a picturesque, walkable downtown. But one factor in our favor, it seems, is that we have a lot of older people already here. Think of it as the “birds of a feather” argument.

“People do like to be around people like them, who are in the same life stage; it's a natural desire to group with ourselves,” says Matt Carmichael, editor of the website, which targets consumers plotting a big move. “Also, when you have a large concentration of a certain kind of resident, it suggests that place is probably working well for whatever that demographic is.”

Just a month ago, Livability dubbed Sarasota the 31st most livable U.S. city overall in the small-to-medium category, which Carmichael says encompasses urban populations from 20,000 to 350,000. The site specializes in bringing attention to places that may not be obvious relocation destinations, he adds, in contrast to New York or Austin or Portland, Oregon.

Aside from the fact that more than a third of Sarasota County's population is 60 and older, Carmichael cites SW Florida's stable climate and relatively affordable food and health care as drivers for this latest top 10 designation. That's in contrast to AARP's Livability Index, which last April placed Sarasota in the middle of the pack as an optimal place to be over 50. The AARP Public Policy Institute, which devised that tool, gave zero points for balmy weather and discounted areas with a lack of transit options for older residents, resulting in a score of 53 out of 100 for Sarasota.

Livability's rankings start with a “data-driven process,” says Carmichael, using metrics like affordability, crime rate, parks and air quality. But in order to serve up a rich sample of options for retirees, the site then applies some geographic diversity as well as a bit of serendipity. Sarasota, he says, makes the best showing among “traditional” venues like Florida.

“The definition of 'retirement city' is starting to expand a little,” he notes. “Not every city on this top 10 is going to work for you, but one of them will.”

So what does Santa Barbara have that Sarasota doesn't? Dan Denton, CEO of Sarasota Magazine, who has moved to the California coastal city and back, says both towns are beautiful. Trying to pick a clear winner, he muses about earthquakes vs. hurricanes, chilly ocean fog vs. “sweltering heat,” and Santa Barbara's strict architectural codes against Sarasota's anything-goes built environment.

“Well, I seem to have chosen here,” he concedes. “Santa Barbara has the mountains and the rugged coast and the beautiful blue Pacific. But the waters are not as inviting, and not great for boating and swimming.”

And — of interest to retiring boomers who want to keep working — Denton calls Santa Barbara “a difficult place to be in business. You're sort of expected to arrive with all your funds.”

But Livability's Carmichael says the crucial distinction for Sarasota is its selection from about 2,000 contenders for the top 10 list, and we shouldn't worry about coming in second-best.

“The difference between one and two is not all that important,” he insists. “These are all excellent cities.”