With a few more connectors, Sarasota County could become ‘best trail county in state’ and possibly in U.S., county’s Tourist Development Council members learn

Former Commissioner Hines advocates for seven-county Florida Gulf Coast Trail

This graphic shows the Florida Gulf Coast Trail. Image courtesy Trust for Public Land

It likely would take Sarasota County only two to three years, with the creation of a few more connectors, to become “the best trail county in the state of Florida [and] potentially in the United States,” former county Commissioner Charles Hines told the members of the county’s Tourist Development Council on Feb. 8.

About two years ago, Hines explained, after he had to step down from the commission because of term limits, he began working for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land as the advocate for the Florida Gulf Coast Trail.

At that time, he said, “No one had really heard of [that trail],” which has been planned to connect the counties in Southwest Florida.

Sarasota and Pinellas counties, Hines continued, are the leaders in having “a great local trail.”

Although Sarasota County’s nearly 20-mile-long Legacy Trail connects North Port to downtown Sarasota, he pointed out, it is not what he would consider the type of amenity that draws people to the county. However, he emphasized, “We have an opportunity to make it a true attractor.”

The Trust for Public Land — which worked with Sarasota County to make The Legacy Trail possible — believes in “connecting everybody to the outdoors,” Hines continued, as outdoor experiences are invaluable in promoting good physical and mental health.

Although people often have told him not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, he indicated, he told the Tourist Development Council (TDC) members that he was on the County Commission when public health advisories called for closing amenities to protect people from the coronavirus.

The County Commission chose not to close county parks, Hines pointed out. “We kept our beaches open,” he said, though the parking lots were closed for a few weeks in an effort to keep too many people from congregating at the beach parks.

Acknowledging, “Hindsight’s 20:20,” Hines nonetheless told the TDC members, “I believe our commission really did the right thing.”

In fact, he continued, he received numerous emails from people who had visited some of the county’s natural areas for the first time, after the pandemic began. They were so impressed by what they found, he added. For example, Hines said, one person talked of finding out “what a great place” the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve is, near Venice.

If completed as envisioned, Hines added, the Florida Gulf Trail would encompass 420 miles through seven counties: Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, Lee, Collier, Hillsborough and Pinellas. Only 157 miles — about 40% — already are available for public use, he noted. “It’s too disconnected,” Hines said, for Visit Sarasota County, the county’s tourism office, to market it to potential visitors.

He is working on making the needed connectors a reality, he added, and he encouraged the Tourist Development Council members to join him in advocacy for the creation of those missing links.

Then Hines noted some of the numerous benefits of Sarasota County’s work — with nonprofit, public and local government support — to expand The Legacy Trail. Showing the Council members a slide, Hines said that the historic Venice Train Depot was slated to be torn down before steps were taken to transform it into what he called a “major trailhead” for The Legacy Trail.

Image courtesy Trust for Public Land

For another example, he presented a slide showing Shamrock Park in Venice, which — he pointed out — “has really become a destination place,” thanks to The Legacy Trail. Before the Trail made access to it easy, he added, Shamrock Park was isolated; now it has meeting space that is being utilized.

Moreover, Hines continued, The Legacy Trail is “not just for riding your bike for exercise.” Students use it to reach schools, for example, he said. Another slide showed the Trail’s alignment close to Venice High School and Venice Elementary.

The Legacy Trail runs in close proximity to Venice High School and Venice Elementary School (to the right of the waterway). Image courtesy Trust for Public Land

Yet one more slide depicted Payne Park in downtown Sarasota. “A lot more activities can go on there,” Hines said, because the public can walk or bike on the Trail to reach that park, as well.

He also showed the Council members a slide regarding the Ashton Trailhead in Sarasota, explaining, “This was an isolated piece of land that the county owned.” Thanks to the efforts of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, he added, the property was transformed into a trailhead that also has become a neighborhood destination, as it is home to a popular playground and hookups for food trucks.

The former Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles driver’s license property on Pompano Avenue, south of Fruitville Road in Sarasota, “was going to be surplused and sold,” he continued. That county decision followed the state’s steps to turn over all driver’s license issuance to tax collectors’ offices. Sarasota County Tax Collector Barbara Ford-Coates and her staff worked with county staff to design and construct the Mid-County Tax Collector’s Office on Sawyer Loop Road, to provide a more convenient location for members of the public who live outside North County and to serve as the site where driving tests are given.

The Pompano property has become another major trailhead, Hines noted, with plenty of activity on its pickleball and basketball courts. It also is within close proximity to the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota and DeSoto Counties, he added, so children can reach its amenities by walking or biking.

Safe access to many locations

Noting that some of the Council members follow the work of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization, which deals with transportation issues, as well as Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) action affecting Sarasota County, Hines indicated that those members know “our safety record in the state of Florida for walking and biking is not very good … Actually,” he acknowledged, “it’s one of the worst, if not the worst, in the country.”

Although bike lanes are available along many roads, Hines continued, those routes are not protected. The Florida Gulf Coast Trail, however, offers an opportunity for bikers and pedestrians to travel safely without worries about conflicts with vehicles, he said.

Then Hines turned to the issue of accelerating the completion of the missing connectors for that Trail.
When he was a county commissioner, Hines told the Council members, “I didn’t have a lot of patience.” When he learned of a project proposal with considerable community support, he continued, and that project “made sense,” he “pushed for it very hard.”

He pointed out that the Council members are community leaders. (Each municipality in the county has a representative on that advisory board, with members of the public filling the other seats.)

“It takes all of us,” he said, to keep working to make the Florida Gulf Coast Trail a reality. The TDC members can ask what local government bodies, area foundations and the nonprofit Friends of the Legacy Trail can do to assist in pulling together the funds for the necessary new connectors, he added.

This graphic shows facets of the plans for the 17th Street Park connector to Benderson Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In late January, Hines continued, the Sarasota County Commission approved funding for the design of a planned Legacy Trail connector to Nathan Benderson Park, which is south of University Parkway. Benderson Park, he added, will become “a major, major trailhead for the Florida Gulf Coast Trail.”

That connector will run from the City of Sarasota’s Bobby Jones Golf Club Nature Park to the county’s 17th Street Park, where significant new amenities are planned to make that facility not only a local destination but potentially a national site of youth and adult softball events. Then from that park, the regional trail will continue to Benderson Park.

In light of that north-south connector, Hines pointed out, “We need to get a better east and west connection” that will tie in with River Road in South County and ultimately the Wellen Park communities and Myakka State Forest in Englewood.

Hines noted that he attends many major biking events to explain, “We really have the opportunity here to do something special throughout Southwest Florida.”

One step that has been completed, he said, has been the creation of a Florida Gulf Coast Trail logo. It just so happened that the winning design was designed by a Sarasota artist, he noted.

The Trust for Public Lands is going to use the logo, Hines said, to bring more attention to the plans for the regional trail.

In concluding his remarks, Hines offered a variation on his earlier request to the Council members: “I’m asking for your help.”