Passing of Larry Marthaler, founder of the Circus Ring Of Fame.

Larry Marthaler, the man who founded Sarasota County’s tourism agency, died Tuesday night in Nashville, Tennessee.

Marthaler, 81, was executive director of the Greater Sarasota Tourism Association and was the guiding force behind a countywide referendum that created the tourism development tax. The former Longboat Key resident had been in poor health and had relocated within the past year to Tennessee to be closer to his wife, Mary’s, family, said David Brenner, former neighbor and close friend.

The family has discussed having a celebration of life in Sarasota later this spring, but no formal arrangements have been made, Brenner said.

Under Marthaler’s leadership, the county’s tourism agency separated from the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce in 1982 to become the Greater Sarasota Tourism Association. Marthaler served until 1989. The organization eventually became Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau and today is known as Visit Sarasota County, said Virginia Haley, president of organization.

The tourism industry has changed dramatically since Marthaler organized the Greater Sarasota Tourism Association, said John Moran operations manager for the Downtown Improvement District and a close friend. He remembered Marthaler rallying local hoteliers together and carefully deciding how to spend his tiny budget.

“I think he did a lot for the community,” Moran said. “When you start an organization that is as successful as it is now, that’s impressive.”

The tourism development tax initiative was a game-changer for the area, Haley said. The question came on the ballot in 1988, and the referendum was approved by 76 percent of the voters. That money has since supported some of the most prominent tourism facilities in the county.

“If not for Larry, we wouldn’t have spring training today,” Haley said. “We wouldn’t have Nathan Benderson Park. He built that foundation with getting that tax.”

Brenner remembered Marthaler as a friendly, outgoing and resourceful person. He recalled when the former New Pass Bridge linking Longboat Key and Sarasota was stuck open in October 1963, and no vehicular traffic could use the bridge. That incident transformed a four-mile drive between downtown Sarasota and Longboat Key to a 29-mile trek. Marthaler had a solution in less than 48 hours, and arranged to have The LeBarge tourism boat shuttle passengers between the keys. The ferry logged as many as 5,000 passengers per day, according to a 1983 article in the Herald-Tribune.

“He had a real impact on tourism here and how people thought about things,” Brenner said.

Marthaler founded the St. Armands Circle Circus Ring of Fame in 1986 as a way to highlight Sarasota’s unique ties to the circus industry. A plaque honoring Marthaler’s contribution was added to the display in 2014.

Marthaler was born Feb. 1, 1935, in Chicago and was the son of the former Marguerite Leona Quintez and Alfred Jacob Marthaler. He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1957.  He joined Pan American Airways the next year.  During the next 16 years, he was stationed in New York, Denver, Miami, Chicago, South Vietnam and Atlanta.

In 1975, he married Mary Jean Bridges of Cadiz, Kentucky, and the couple moved to Longboat Key. Marthaler worked for Florida Airlines from 1975 to 1982.

He is survived by his wife and a brother, Kent, and his family in Evanston, Illinois.

The National Cremation & Burial Society is in charge of arrangements.

Donations may be made to the Circus Ring of Fame Foundation, PO Box 17591, Sarasota, FL 34276.

About the Author: