City Commission gives unanimous approval to Phase 2 of downtown Sarasota Bay Park

Tax-increment financing district funds expected to cover about $48.8 million of $65-million expense

Slightly more than a week before the grand opening of Phase 1 of The Bay Park on the City of Sarasota’s 53 downtown waterfront acres, the city commissioners gave unanimous consent to preliminary plans for Phase 2.

“We are not content to be talking about our opening, which is in 11 days,” Jennifer Compton, secretary of the nonprofit Bay Park Conservancy (BPC), told the city commissioners on Oct. 3. “We want to look ahead and continue our momentum,” she said.

Before the Oct. 3 vote, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch did raise questions about plans for restaurants — with rooftop seating — in one area of Phase 2. “I don’t think any of that has been discussed,” she said.

“It’s very preliminary future planning,” Bill Waddill, chief operating officer of the Conservancy, responded. “But any time you do improvements in a park as an initial phase,” he added, “it’s very smart planning to think about what could happen in the future,” to prevent earlier construction from having to be torn down.

“I want to have it on the record, crystal clear, this needs more discussion,” Ahearn-Koch responded.

Waddill emphasized that restaurants were not part of the plans for which the Conservancy team was seeking commission approval that day.

Nonetheless, Commissioner Liz Alpert pointed out that past Bay Park presentations had indicated planning for restaurants in the Canal District. “I think it’s a good idea,” she continued. “Food and beverage revenues were always part of the plan, but, also, when people go to a big park like this,” Alpert said, people want to find someplace to eat and drink.”

During a discussion last year with the County Commission, Waddill indicated that a percentage of revenue from restaurants in the park would be used to cover the Conservancy’s expenses in operating the facilities.

A PowerPoint presentation that the BPC group gave the city commissioners on Oct. 3 explained facets of the four features of Phase 2: the Dockside/South Canal District, the City Side Cultural District; the modified Sunset Boardwalk and Pier; and the Western Shoreline. The total estimated expense for those elements is $65 million, Waddill pointed out.

Thanks to $12 million that the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Conservancy has received in government grants, plus $5 million in private funds, the organization is seeking only $48 million from a city bond issuance that would be backed by the revenue collected through the tax-increment financing (TIF) mechanism that the City Commission and the Sarasota County Commission approved to pay for The Bay Park, Waddill added.

Both commissions have to approve the final plans, and the related expenditures, before any actual work begins, as detailed in the interlocal agreement they approved.

“We’ve always said it would be about 50-50 public and private [money] to build the park,” Waddill added on Oct. 3.

AG Lafley, founding CEO of the Conservancy, pointed out that the nonprofit had invested $40.5 million “to date” on Phase 1, which encompasses 14 acres on the southern part of the 53 acres. He added that 90% of that money had come from private sources, with the city having contributed $3 million.

As city Finance Director Kelly Strickland pointed out during the regular commission meeting last week, the projected TIF funds are about 40% higher this year than originally anticipated, thanks to the jumps in property values for both the city and the county.

A slide that the BPC representatives showed the city commissioners put the total estimated TIF revenue from the city and the county at $308,033,001 by Fiscal Year 2049.

The TIF district, which encompasses more property than just the 53 park acres, was established formally as of Jan. 1, 2019.

For every year the property in the TIF district increases in value, the city and county governments apply a millage rate to the new value. Then, the resulting revenue is set aside in a trust fund for the park, instead of going into the city and county General Fund accounts, with the rest of the property tax revenue the local governments receive for that fiscal year.

Finance Director Strickland reminded the city commissioners on Oct. 3 that the interlocal agreement specifies that the lower millage rate that either local government board approves in a given year would be applied to the property value increase. Since the City Commission set its 2022-23 fiscal year millage rate at 3 mills, she said, that is the figure both will use for the next tax increment deposit.

A slide included in the Conservancy group’s Oct. 3 presentation to the city commissioners pointed out, with emphasis, that the “latest TIF trust fund projections exceed original forecasts by [$3 million] after just 3 years.”

The next 14-acre section of the park should be completed within three years of receipt of the TIF funding, Waddill said.

The features of Phase 2

Using slides, Waddill showed the commissioners the concepts for the four sections of Phase 2.

First, he said, what is being called the Dockside/South Canal District will be on the south side of the 10th Street Boat Ramp and canal. That will feature open space and a park area that can accommodate food trucks and trailers.

The master plan for Phase 2, he noted, “does include several waterfront restaurants,” but those were not part of the Phase 2 request that day.

The food options in Phase 2 “have to be mobile, because they’re in the FEMA floodplain,” he added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

If another hurricane heads toward Sarasota County, he explained, whatever is standing on the Phase 2 acreage would have to be moved to higher ground.

Further, Waddill said, about 1,000 feet of crumbling seawall on the south side of Phase 2 will be replaced, and the BPC has begun the permitting process “for some day docks,” which would be an expansion of the existing docks.

Moreover, he noted, Phase 2 will include treatment of “hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted stormwater that’s drained into [Sarasota] Bay” from that portion of Phase 2.

He reminded the commissioners that addressing the stormwater issue has been a major component of Phase 1.

Next, Waddill continued, the Cultural District has been planned along U.S. 41, from the 10th Street roundabout to the Blue Pagoda and a fountain garden. The primary feature of that section in Phase 2 will be shade structures at two of the recreational green spaces that the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club used in the past. One of those spaces contains about 12,000 square feet; the other, approximately 15,000 square feet, as indicated on Waddill’s slide.

Further, he said, a section called the South Plaza, encompassing about 5,200 square feet, “would include an interactive fountain for families …” When it is not in use, he added, it would serve as a “flex plaza for different kinds of outdoor events.”

Finally, in that section, Waddill pointed out, the historic Hazard Fountain, which is located in the current parking lot, would be restored.

The projected expense for the Cultural District on its own is $20 million, Waddill told the commissioners.

Noting the section farther south, he explained that the BPC has spent about a year of an anticipated two-year-long process to obtain the necessary permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to construct the Sunset Boardwalk and Pier. Although the original design showed a circular pier, he continued, the updated version “sort of dead-ends in a structure …” Among the reasons for that modification, he said, are concerns produced by years of environmental review that a circular pier would damage coral and seagrass in Sarasota Bay. “So our team and the Corps of Engineers are recommending that we nestle in an area that does not have environmental resources in it.”

“We also believe that we should get Corps approval next year,” Waddill added. “We should be able to build it from the water and complete [the boardwalk and pier] by 2024 or early ’25.”

The final element of Phase 2, he continued, will be called the Western Shoreline.

Waddill acknowledged that the slide he was presenting featured New York City in the background — a view that had prompted some laugher in the City Commission Chambers. The existing walkway in that area of The Bay is probably only about 5 feet above ground level, he said. Plans call for moving the walkway inland and elevating it about 8 or 10 feet above ground level, he added, “so that it is resilient to storm surge.”

The result would be a “living shoreline,” Waddill noted.

The BPC received a $10.4-million state environmental resiliency grant for that project, he pointed out, noting that Gov. Ron DeSantis flew into Sarasota in January to present the funding award.

The Western Shoreline would be completed in 2025 or 2026, Waddill said.

In response to a question from Commissioner Ahearn-Koch, Waddill said that the Western Shoreline would run along the park perimeter from the Canal District to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. The seawall on the south side of the canal would stay in place, he added.

Underscoring the Conservancy’s fundraising work

Lafley, the Conservancy’s founding CEO, emphasized to the commissioners that he and his colleagues had raised $55 million in cash and commitments from private sources.

“As we showed earlier,” he continued, referring to a slide, Phase 1 was completed in fewer than three years at a cost of approximately $40 million. Of the $65-million projected expense for Phase 2, he said, 75% is being sought from the TIF revenue, with the rest to come from grants and private money.

Lafley also stressed that the Conservancy, “as a matter of best practice,” reviews its project plans with the Bay Park Improvement Board, which comprises two commissioners each from the City and County commissions, plus former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, and it also updates both the full City and County commissions on an annual basis.

“We will continue to submit audited financial statements to the city annually in accordance with the long-term partnership agreement,” which the City Commission approved in 2021,” he added.

“We will continue to post quarterly financial statements after every board meeting,” Lafley continued, including the nonprofit’s balance sheet and income statement.

Commissioner Alpert stressed that level of transparency to her colleagues in voicing support for the Phase 2 plans.