City Commission approves construction of off-leash dog parks in Whitaker Gateway and Gillespie parks

Staff says timeline for advertising bids and awarding contract means the facilities should be completed in a few months

A graphic shows the concept for the dog park within Whitaker Gateway Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

With Commissioner Hagen Brody casting the sole “No” vote, the Sarasota City Commission this week approved staff’s proposal for constructing off-leash dog parks in Gillespie Park and Whitaker Gateway Park.

The request for proposals for the facilities is expected to be advertised by mid-September, with a response time of 30 to 45 days allowed, Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, told The Sarasota News Leader in response to questions about the construction timeline.

In March, Jerry Fogle, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said he expected it would take three to four months for the off-leash dog parks to be built after the commission awarded the contract for the work.

One of his concerns, Brody said during the board’s regular meeting on Aug. 21, was the cost. The backup agenda material noted the estimate for the Whitaker Gateway Park facility is $98,959.62; for Gillespie Park, $113,664.60.

“One hundred thousand dollars for a fenced-in dog park seems excessive to me,” Brody said, “but I’m no expert.”

Additionally, he continued, “these two parks are very close together …” Perhaps it would be better, he suggested, to create one off-leash dog park west of Tamiami Trail.

However, Commissioner Willie Shaw explained that a major goal with both parks from the outset of the planning has been to discourage homeless people and vagrants from gathering in the two parks. Ten to 15 years ago, he pointed out, Whitaker Gateway Park was where city staff first found gatherings of homeless people in the community. They also were “sleeping under the hedges there.” A similar situation followed in Gillespie Park, Shaw said.

The effort to create these off-leash dog parks has been underway for quite a while, Fogle concurred. In fact, he noted, when he was named last year to lead the Parks and Recreation Department, residents in the vicinity of the two parks explained to him that their requests originated two to three years ago, but the city had not been able to afford to build the dog parks. At this time, Fogle said, “we do have the funding to do this.”

Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle. News Leader photo

Fogle added that he also had discussed the background of the project with Todd Kucharski, general manager of the city’s Public Works Department, who previously had dealt with the residents’ requests.

Although the city has 51 parks, Fogle continued, only Arlington Park has an off-leash dog park, and that is on a converted softball field, which is not, Fogle noted, an ideal situation for such a facility.

Building the dog parks within Gillespie and Whitaker Gateway parks, Fogle said, “would be a good way of enhancing [both] and giving our residents something they really desperately need and want.”

Phil Smith, a landscape architect with David W. Johnson and Associates who designed the off-leash dog parks, also explained that the estimate for the expense of each facility was based on industry standards. The park areas will include fencing, site improvements, furniture and other elements that contribute to the cost, Smith added.

The city will use a public bid process, Smith pointed out, to secure contractors for the work. It is possible the bids will come in lower than the estimates, he noted, and that is staff’s hope.

Then Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch explained that she worked on the Whitaker Gateway Park project in conjunction with her Tahiti Park Neighborhood Association leadership roles, prior to her election to the board this spring. “I think the impetus [for] all of this was to activate those parks.”

Tahiti Park residents and people living in other nearby neighborhoods were concerned about unwelcome activities in Whitaker Gateway Park, she added; they saw the off-leash dog park as a means of mitigating the problems by encouraging many people to use the facility.

“It’s a big city,” Brody protested. Staff could create one of the off-leash parks in the Bobby Jones Golf Club corridor, for example, he added.

A graphic shows details about the design of the dog park within Gillespie Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Noting his familiarity with the Sarasota County off-leash facility within its 17th Street Park, he continued, “it’s a destination that people will go to specifically to let their dog out. We don’t need one at every park in the city.”

“Whitaker [Gateway Park] has a lot of issues,” Fogle responded, referring to Ahearn-Koch’s comments. “On top of that, we have a lot of people that walk their dogs there.”

That is true for Gillespie Park, as well, he said. At any given time, Fogle continued, “you’ll see tons and tons of residents walking their dogs [in Gillespie Park].”

Fogle added that as he and his staff begin work next month on a new master parks plan for the city, they will consider other areas for dog parks. Still, he said, staff would like to build the first new off-leash dog facilities in Whitaker Gateway and Gillespie parks.

Shaw made the motion to approve a total of $212,624.22 for the construction. Ahearn-Koch seconded it, and it passed 4-1.

City sales tax revenue will be used to cover the expense, according to material Fogle provided the board.

Whitaker Gateway Park is located at 1455 N. Tamiami Trail. Gillespie Park is located at the intersection of Gillespie Avenue and Osprey Avenue.