It’s taken longer than expected, but the Sarasota/Bradenton market is finally growing at the pace developers predicted 20 years ago. Downtown, there’s so much construction that it’s difficult to negotiate traffic.

Several factors mark the change:
• Casto Lifestyles Properties of Sarasota is building an upscale retail and residential complex downtown.
• The troubled Sarasota/Bradenton airport was given a boost by the arrival of Air Tran Airways, a discount carrier.
• Sarasota area retail occupancy is at 95 percent, with more than half the centers at 100 percent, according to local real estate company Ault Realty Advisors, Inc. And the population on Florida’s southwest coast is exploding, with the Sarasota MSA expected to grow 10 percent to 706,000 by 2009.

The growth precipitates a greater need for retail. The Westfield Group is expanding its two major malls, adding 160,000 square feet of specialty retail to the 422,000-square-foot Southgate, while including a 12-screen AMC Theatre at its Sarasota mall. Sales are healthy, with Southgate reporting $501 per square foot last year, says Randall Smith, Westfield executive vice president of business development.

For many years, downtown was a retail black hole as the population moved to the suburbs. However, residential and condo development has revitalized the neighborhood, with signs of construction everywhere. Local officials estimate that the residential population has grown by 3,000 in the past five to 10 years. Now it has a number of restaurants and gift shops, though there still isn’t much foot traffic at night.

Downtown Sarasota got its first major grocery store earlier this year when Whole Foods Supermarket opened at Casto’s One Hundred Central mixed-use development. The project includes 95 condominiums and an additional 24,000 square feet of retail with the much-craved Starbucks. “The residential growth has definitely outstripped the retail growth,” says Brett Hutchens, Casto president and CEO.

Two other proposed downtown developments could finally bring mass retail.

Isaac Group plans Pineapple Square, with about 210 residences and about 130,000 square feet of retail space. Set for completion by 2007, no retailers have been announced.

Casto also plans to bring in more high-end retail. Already, St. Armand’s Circle, located on an island west of the city, is one of the ritziest retail addresses in Florida with about 130 high-end retailers.

Now Casto, in partnership with Dublin, Ireland-based Irish American Management Services Ltd., is considering redeveloping the previously failed Quay complex, to include an open-air center with 150,000 square feet of high-end retailers.

With limited land available in the dense downtown, retailers that make it here have to be very successful.

A Saks Fifth Avenue arrived five years ago and is now rumored to have the highest sales per square foot in Florida. “I think when Saks came here, it underestimated that the store would be so popular,” says Jane Robinson, director of planning and redevelopment for Sarasota “I think it shows the pent-up demand here.”