Ashton Trailhead the newest amenity open on The Legacy Trail, as part of North Extension

Community leaders and residents gather to celebrate the event, including ‘christening’ of new playground by Ashton Elementary students

Nicole Rissler, director of the Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, addresses the audience during the Nov. 30 festivities. Image courtesy Sarasota County via Facebook

On the morning of Nov. 30, the director of Sarasota County’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR) offered a new enticement for people to get out on The Legacy Trail.

Standing before present and past members of the County Commission, county staff and representatives of the Friends of the Legacy Trail and the Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Club, Nicole Rissler pointed out that all were gathered not just to celebrate the opening of the new Ashton Trailhead. The occasion also marked the first time in county parks history that staff would open a facility with pads for mobile vending operations.

To underscore that achievement, she thanked representatives of the Peachey’s Baking Co., who had been chosen to bring in “the first food truck to christen the new food truck spots.”

“If you have not had one of their doughnuts,” Rissler continued, “you should do it here today. They are delicious.”

She added with a laugh, “You might need to get on the Trail and ride after that.”

(On its Facebook page, the company says it has been serving “authentic Amish baked goods since 1985 …” The page adds, “The doughnuts launched their own mobile adventure in 2007.”)

Rissler also noted that the Ashton Trailhead is the first of three new trailheads planned for the North Extension of The Legacy Trail. It stands at 4301 Ashton Road in Sarasota.

The Sarasota Springs Trailhead will be located at 4012 Webber St., and the Pompano Trailhead will stand at 601 S. Pompano Ave. next to the Sarasota County Fairgrounds.

“We are standing on what used to be a vacant lot,” Rissler explained of the Ashton site. It was used for overflow parking for the county’s fleet, she said, nodding in the direction of the fleet location across the street.

The Ashton Trailhead is slightly more than 12 miles from the original starting point of The Legacy Trail, the Venice Train Depot, Rissler continued. Payne Park, she noted, “will be just under 6 miles to the north.”

“It was undeniable,” she explained, “that we needed to plan for dedicated trailheads that included restrooms and additional parking.” That realization, she indicated, came after the November 2018 referendum in which 72% of voters approved the county’s proposal to issue $65 million in bonds for not only the North Extension but also for the North Port Connector.

This map, created by the Friends of the Legacy Trail, offers lots of details about the segments and locations for trailhead parking. To take a closer look, visit the nonprofit’s website. Image courtesy Friends of the Legacy Trail

In 2022, she said, the two other trailheads will open, along with the third segment of the North Extension — the route from Bahia Vista Street to Fruitville Road and Payne Park in downtown Sarasota — and the North Port Connector.

Rissler also emphasized in her remarks that the Nov. 30 event marked another step in what she routinely has called “our race to completion.”

The Ashton Trailhead is located at 4301 Ashton Road. Image courtesy Sarasota County via Facebook

Along with the food truck pads, she continued, the Ashton Trailhead offers restrooms, a drinking fountain, a bike repair station, picnic shelters with grills, and an event lawn.

However, the focal point of the park — which also served as the backdrop for the festivities — is “this fantastic new playground,” as Rissler put it.

In fact, she noted, county staff had invited special guests to break in the equipment: students from the nearby Ashton Elementary School.

Ashton Elementary students pose on the new playground. Image courtesy Sarasota County via Facebook

During his remarks that morning, Commissioner Ron Cutsinger emphasized the hard work of staff to achieve the goal everyone was celebrating. “I love it when things turn out better than you could hope for or anticipated,” he added.

Even better, Cutsinger continued, “In this case, we’re way ahead of schedule and, in many cases, we’re way under budget” with The Legacy Trail projects. The Ashton playground, he pointed out, is twice the size of the facility originally planned, and it cost $20,000 less than the initial budget.

Referring to the Ashton Elementary students, Cutsinger added, “Those kids are going to have a blast.”

During his Nov. 30 comments, Commissioner Alan Maio, chair of the board, talked about the fact that the trailheads will serve as new parks; they are additions to the 160 ball fields, trails and other destination facilities that the county offers to the public on approximately 55,000 acres. “That’s quite a statement for us,” he noted of the statistics.

Maio also took the opportunity to thank County Administrator Jonathan Lewis “for challenging his staff” to get the flat sections of the North Extension open as quickly as possible. Maio, too, emphasized the fact that the North Extension is two years ahead of the original schedule.

That accelerated timeline has enabled residents who live close to the North Extension, especially, to use the segments from Palmer Ranch to Bahia Vista Street, Maio said.

Overpasses at Clark Road and Bee Ridge Road will be constructed within the next couple of years by the Florida Department of Transportation.

This graphic shows details about the timeline for completion of Legacy Trail projects, including the three segments of the North Extension from Culverhouse Nature Park to downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

New plans in process, thanks to community support

Rissler had one other, related announcement for the crowd: The Friends of the Legacy Trail and the Sarasota Manatee Bicycle Club “have pledged significant dollars” to enable county staff to create a bifurcated Trail in multiple locations, where space permits. That will allow for the separation of bicyclists from pedestrians, including those walking dogs, she pointed out.

“We already have conflicts,” she said, “because so many people love [the first two segments of the North Extension].”

On Nov. 30, addressing the representatives of the two nonprofit organizations, Rissler added, “We thank you from the bottom of our hearts” for that offer of assistance.

Applause and whoops among the audience members met that news.

The Friends of the Legacy Trail, which provides user data on its website, says that through September, 332,144 people had enjoyed the Trail since 2021 began. Last year, the number of users totaled 409,545, the chart notes.

This graph shows user statistics for The Legacy Trail. Image courtesy of the Friends of the Legacy Trail

Steve Martin, a member of the Friends organization, explains on the website how he calculates the data.

The Friends’ website also points out that, with the opening of the two North Extension segments earlier this year, “[W]e now have a continuous 19.6-mile trail extending from Shamrock Park in the south to Bahia Vista Street in the north. The southern portion includes 3.9 miles of the mainland side of the Venetian Waterway Park.”

Segment 1, from Proctor Road to Bahia Vista, opened in early July. Segment 2, from Palmer Ranch to Proctor, opened in October.

Jon F. Swift of Sarasota, the North Extension’s construction manager, recently installed prefabricated bridges over two waterways along the third segment, as county staff noted in an update on Nov. 19. Just that week, the report said, a bridge was placed over Phillippi Creek on the west side of Beneva Road.

A Jon F. Swift crew maneuvers this bridge into place for the third segment of the North Extension. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Following the conclusion of the formal remarks on Nov. 30, Commissioner Maio used ceremonial, oversize scissors to cut the ribbon to mark the official opening of the Ashton Trailhead.