Commissioners approve staff request but acknowledge surprise at $2.9-million playground expense
Acknowledging the sharp rise in construction costs, with which businesses and local governments alike are contending, the Sarasota city commissioners this week agreed to the use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for a number of city initiatives, adding up to $5,061,881.
The biggest amount on the list — $2,254,000 — will be used to replace the Bayfront Park playground and splash pad; the new construction will have a shipwreck theme. Although the project team had cut elements of the design to reduce the original $4-million expense, the board members agreed, as part of Commissioner Liz Alpert’s motion, to allow City Manager Marlon Brown flexibility to try to find the money to add back in shade structures.
Altogether, that project will cost about $2.9 million, Jerry Fogle, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, told the board members during their July 5 meeting.
The remaining money will come from Parks and Recreation Penny Sales Tax revenue, city Communications Specialist Jason Bartolone told The Sarasota News Leader. “Staff plan to bring back a construction agreement soon that includes updated costs for the shade structure that commissioners asked to be added back into the project if additional funding can be identified,” Bartolone added in his July 7 email, responding to News Leader questions.
During the July 5 City Commission discussion, Mayor Erik Arroyo talked about a video that a resident recently had sent him, showing the resident’s 3-year-old daughter addressing Arroyo and pleading with him: “Mr. Mayor, please fix this park.”
Laughing, Arroyo described the video as “emotional manipulation at its finest.”
The funding request was part of the commission’s second Consent Agenda of routine business matters. The staff agenda request form explained that, on June 6, the city received its second tranche of the ARPA money from the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Altogether, the city’s ARPA share was $10,123,762, the form noted. “According to the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) Final Rule eligible uses — a standard allowance for revenue loss of $10,000,000 may be applied to governmental services. The City is utilizing this $10,000,000 for non-recurring projects within the City,” the form added.
Commissioner Hagen Brody had pulled the item for discussion, City Manager Brown explained, as the board members routinely approve Consent Agenda items in one vote. In preparation for any meeting, however a commissioner may request a discussion of a particular issue.
Brody was not present, Brown had noted earlier, because Brody had personal matters to deal with that morning. (As it happened, the meeting concluded by noon.)
Brown apologized for the fact that he had not scheduled staff remarks to the board members about the specific proposals in the ARPA funding request. “I will take full responsibility for that.”
Along with the park amenities, the July 5 supplemental budget list included $1.6 million for five new Solid Waste Division vehicles, to replace aging models; $800,000 for a new mobile command center for the Sarasota Police Department — again, to replace an aging unit, Brown noted; $442,000 to help pay for a lighted, pedestrian bridge so residents of the Hispanic neighborhood on Serena Street could walk to the Town & Country Plaza located at 501 N. Beneva Road; $60,000 “to kick-start the Nature Park part” of the renovated Bobby Jones Golf Club; and $100,327 that would be set aside for use at the golf club if the renovations and new construction exceed the budgeted amount.
“There may be some overages associated with the clubhouse,” Brown noted. In response to commissioners’ comments earlier this year, he pointed out, staff would be providing a future presentation on new concepts for that building, to make it more in keeping with the focus on enhancing the environmental aspects of the golf club property.
In regard to the Bayfront Park playground, Brown pointed out that, given the increasing expense of construction materials, “Building that [facility] has gone up tremendously.” He added that the playground and splash pad have been closed most of the past two years.
When Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch asked Brown whether staff could wait on a vote for the funding, until after a presentation had been made to the board members, Brown replied, “The longer we take, [the more likely] the construction costs are going up. … A lot of it — timing is of the essence.”
“I have no problem with any of these projects,” Ahearn-Koch responded. Still, she said of the Bayfront Park plans, “That’s a very, very big number.”
Brown told the commissioners that he and Deputy City Manager Patrick Robinson had thoroughly vetted all of the ARPA funding requests. Still, Brown acknowledged, “A lot of these are sticker shock to me. It is difficult to bring these projects before you and ask for the additional money.”
Nonetheless, he continued, “We’ve heard form a lot of the contractors the longer we wait, there’s no telling what the cost would be.”
“All of these fit in with our strategic plans and goals,” Ahearn-Koch said. “It’s just the number are very big.”
Diving into the details
At the commission’s request, Fogle of the Parks and Recreation Department; Jason Swift, president of Jon F. Swift Construction, which won the bid to oversee the Bayfront Park project; and Sarasota landscape architect Phil Smith, who consulted on the initiative, provided a PowerPoint presentation on those plans.
Fogle explained that the original design for the project ended up at the $4-million mark. Thanks to the paring of facets of the plans, Fogle added, the expense was lowered to the figure provided to the commission.
“If we wait,” he stressed, “[the cost] will increase. There’s no doubt about it.”
Jason Swift added, “We get price increases on a weekly basis.”
Fogle further pointed to the fact that the playground and splash pad will be a custom-made. “This is really unique,” he said of the proposal. “We had community meetings,” he also noted, adding that the project has been designed to be inclusive of all city residents.
“I think it’s going to be one of the most impactful amenities for our parks [and] for our citizens,” he told the commissioners.
Fogle then showed the commissioners a slide depicting the current playground/splash pad conditions. They are “in horrible shape,” he noted. “Everything has to go.”
Smith focused on various elements of the design, noting that the splash pad would be brought up to ground level, “to help with parental supervision.”
State-of-the-art construction would enable the city to keep the amenity open year-round, Smith added, calling it “a really neat attraction.”
Fencing will surround the playground and splash pad, Fogle said, with only one way in and one way out, “so it’s secure and safe.”
“I think they’re going to love it,” he added, referring to the children who would use the facility.
Smith also showed the board members a list of the features of the design that had been eliminated, to reduce the expense to just below $3 million. Among those, he said, some of the shade structures would not be included, as shown on the original concept plan.
“I think it’s an important project that shouldn’t continue to be delayed,” Commissioner Alpert said at the conclusion of the presentation. “I’m sorry we had to eliminate shade structures,” she added, calling them very important for parents, especially.
When City Manager Brown asked whether those could be put in place at a later date, Fogle replied, “Yes, absolutely!”
Commissioner Ahearn-Koch concurred with Alpert on the shade structures. “Kids can’t play in a playground if it’s hot.” If equipment becomes too hot to touch, Ahearn-Koch said, that creates problems. “I think the shade structures are a key element to this.”
Given the popularity of the playground and splash pad in the park, Ahearn-Koch continued, “I think we should make [the project] really the best it can be.”
Landscape architect Smith responded that the members of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) Advisory Board had expressed the same sentiments about the shade. “It’s about a quarter-million dollars to cover the whole structure,” he added of the playground and splash pad.
Since shade structures were placed over the playground within Payne Park in downtown Sarasota, Smith noted, that facility has been one of the most heavily used playgrounds in the city.
“I feel it’s important, you know, that we invest in our children,” Vice Mayor Kyle Battie said. “I don’t necessarily like skimping on costs, cutting corners, when it comes to kids,” he added. People need to think about children’s quality of life, Battie pointed out, as well as the quality of life for adults in the city.
He also emphasized the fact that Bayfront Park is an inclusive environment for city residents.
“I think these are all great plans,” Mayor Arroyo said.
“That’s a very shady park,” he noted of Bayfront Park, “and there is an opportunity” to add more shade structures later. In the meantime, he continued, the splash pad’s water would help cool the children using that facility.
At that point, Brown told the board members that if they wished, he would try to find the extra money from other sources to ensure that all of the planned shade structures could be included at the outset of the construction.
After Alpert made the motion to approve the ARPA funding requests, Ahearn-Koch seconded it, and it passed 4-0.