Upon arriving at Jesse Biter’s office on the top floor of his HUB building, Sarasota’s tech entrepreneur mecca, I was struck by the nonconformity of the interior design. His office space is one large open room, approximately three thousand square feet with windows framing three sides. About two dozen desks line the windows, all-facing towards the middle of the room. No partitions or walls, just young people on headphones staring, not out the windows, but towards the middle of this big open space.
On the flanking wall was a large projector /TV apartus with traditional school desks painted bright red on wheels, haphazardly parked in clusters. At the center, a conference table where I was seated. It looked to be exactly what it was, a young group of people with substantial funding, who decided to rethink commercial office aesthetics.
Surveying the unconventional work enviroment, I noticed a man on a treadmill with a desktop mounted to it. I had seen these contraptions in magazines, but never actually in person. He removed his headphones as he stepped off the treadmill, continuing his stride now moving towards me with a big smile and cheerful blue eyes, he introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Jesse.”
Unlike some tech gurus, who stereotypically are challenged in the social skills department, Biter did not gaze off into the distance as he pontificated on his theories of life and business. Quite the opposite, he looked me straight in the eyes as he spoke with a calm, unassuming yet confident tone about a range of topics on which he was obviously well informed.
As he talked about his passion for politics and making a difference in his own community, it was obvious that he has a thorough understanding of business, politics and development. If he ever had an inclination for political office, he would be exactly the kind of man who would undoubtedly garner a lot of support. But, he assured me that he likes working behind the scenes, where he feels he can actually accomplish more.
Unlike some entrepreneurs that make it big at a young age only to langish in past glory on their sofa, Biter is a tireless worker. In addition to his company, Dealers United, his real estate development projects, his involvement with the HUB in Sarasota, an entrepreneurial think tank, as well as his interest in Abbeton, an angel investment fund, Biter is closely involved with the Enterprise Florida project. He travels extensively with Governor Rick Scott and the team to various domestic and international cities to present the economic advantages of doing business in the state of Florida.
Aware of Biter’s political inclinations, I asked him what exactly was the catalyst that motivated him to get involved in politics.
Biter: My father taught me that you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. So I figured I couldn’t just sit back and complain, so that is why I got involved.
Being the Florida campaign manager for Rick Santorum was an amazing experience. First of all, I learned how someone can be and how the press can portray somebody completely different. To watch someone speak for an hour and a half and give great ideas and great ways to change the country through everyone’s lives from the richest to the poorest. And then for the newspaper to write, “Rick Santorum hates gays.” WHAT? It was just amazing how they twisted things. To really be a close part of a national campaign, to see how it was run, was very exciting.
Why did you decide to become a developer and investor in downtown Sarasota?
Biter: Before I was heavily invested in the stock market. I felt like, I don’t even know these companies. Why are they making money, why not? I decided to put my money where I live, make my town better and make money at the same time.
I’m not bashful about that. Some people have criticized me for wanting to make money. Well, that’s what people do, we make money. You create jobs and make money. There are ways to do that, that are evil and ways that are not evil. If you make a good service or product and people are paying you for it, then it is ok by me.
In recent years, Biter has shifted his focus to local politics with his crusade to increase the density zoning laws in the downtown corridor, where he owns many properties.
His current project is a 10-story apartment/commercial building expected to begin construction in 2014. Although this site is grandfathered in with a 200 unit per acre density, Biter has led the battle with city hall and residents to change the density laws. Enabling developers like himself to build new buildings with more units per square acre, thereby creating more affordable housing to compete with the multi-million dollar options available now.
Most properties in the downtown corridor are zoned for only 50 units per acre with a 10-story height restriction, thereby making the cost per unit much higher when the properties are taken to market. Units must be larger and more expensive , explaining why we have a shortfall in mid-range residential units downtown.
Biter is keenly aware of the need for middle market housing within the central downtown corridor. He and many others see this needed change as paramount to building a more vibrant year-around downtown community and business sector in general.
I know you are involded in the discussion for higher residential density zoning. Can you explain your position?
Biter: To me, we should be able to solve the density issue. I am fine with 50 units an acre as a city, but as a project you should be able to move the density of places that are not residential units. Places like parks, government buildings and office buildings should be transferrable to other residential projects, so that we can split the cost of a project by 200 people rather than 50.
The other thing about density that doesn’t make sense to me is that anybody can come downtown, buy a plot of land, build a ten-story commercial office building, put in a thousand or two thousand- however many units they can jam in there for offices and there is no limit. All that does is increase traffic. For whatever reason, there is tight control on residential, but no control on commercial development.
While I enjoyed getting to know Biter in his business setting, for the purpose of this article, I wanted to photograph him at home with his family. Considering the unconventional office environment Biter had created, I was interested to see what type of home he would choose to live in. As one might expect, he had chosen one of the best locations in the entire city to call home.
He and his lovely wife, Katie, a Sarasota native, live with his two daughters, Abby and Hailey, in an expansive penthouse that spans half the building and two floors, with spectacular views of Sarasota Bay and downtown. The interior design leans towards the masculine side, yet purposely comfortable and elegantly casual. The top level is obviously fun central, complete with a pool table, bar, card tables, a huge deck, outdoor lounge and even a grass area for their golden retriever, Savannah.
Biter’s home is truly a reflection of the man himself, impressive but in a casually confident way as apposed to a lavish, gold-gilt imitation of power and wealth, sometimes seen in homes created with newly acquired money. He is obviously a man with vision and talent but most impressively, he is a man who puts his money where his mouth is. Jesse Biter is undeniably a fascinating Floridian.