City commissioners agree to seek joint meeting with County Commission over potential funding mechanism for The Bay project

City board members direct city staff to work with county staff to prepare draft of options for review before discussion with their county counterparts

This is the TIF district for The Bay proposed by city and county staff, prior to the May 20 City Commission discussion. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The Sarasota city commissioners have decided that they would like to conduct a joint meeting with the Sarasota County commissioners about a potential funding mechanism for future phases of The Bay, a public park with arts and cultural amenities.

The focus would be creation of a tax increment financing district (TIF).

First, however, the city commissioners agreed — on a unanimous vote — they want city staff to meet again with county staff to compile the top choices for each side in regard to how the TIF revenue would be spent.

They also concurred, on the July 15 motion made by Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie, that the management team of the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC) should be part of those staff discussions.

Commissioner Willie Shaw, who seconded the motion, said he was looking for a “list of bullet points,” which the City Commission would review and hone prior to the joint meeting.

During their regular meeting on May 20, the city commissioners were split over how to approach a TIF for The Bay project planned on approximately 53 city-owned acres in downtown Sarasota. Shaw was insistent that the boundaries include the Newtown community, which, he pointed out, would be supplying many of the workers at The Bay. He talked, as well, of the potential for some of the funds to be used for affordable housing, so long-established families could continue to live in Newtown.

The City Commission on April 15 incorporated this exhibit, regarding potential funding sources for Phase 1 of The Bay, into a partnership agreement with the Bay Park Conservancy. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch proposed that part of the TIF revenue be set aside to help connect other city parks to The Bay.

However, during their regular meeting on June 3, county commissioners were adamant that any revenue raised by the TIF be devoted to the park. “I’ll try to stay calm through this,” was how Chair Charles Hines prefaced his remarks.

Hines pointed out that one big reason the County Commission became frustrated over the 30-year life of the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) collaboration between the city and county boards was the city’s use of revenue from that TIF for purposes other than those county commissioners believed were appropriate.

A TIF raises money through the establishment of a base year for property value within a defined district. As the property value grows, the resulting additional tax revenue is put into a trust fund to be devoted to expenditures set out in an agreement governing the TIF.

How to reach a point of cooperation?

This is the revised concept for Phase 1 of The Bay. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the July 15 City Commission meeting, City Manager Tom Barwin talked about the fact that replacing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall — which he called “the flagship” for arts and cultural events in the community for the past 50 years — could cost from $100 million to $150 million. That project, he noted, will be part of future phases of The Bay.

In fact, he said, Phases 2, 3 and 4 of The Bay “will also require some very heavy lifts financially …”

If the county agreed to cooperate with the city in a TIF to help pay for those amenities, Barwin continued, that essentially would “double our potential revenues. … Our dollars [would be] matched almost 1 to 1 by county tax dollars.”

County commissioners watched the City Commission’s May 20 discussion, Barwin said, “and advised us … that the TIF has to be focused on that 53, 55 … acres on the bayfront. … We believe, as your staff, that that is a reasonable request.”

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown added that County Administrator Jonathan Lewis advised city administrative staff to encourage the city commissioners to view the County Commission comments during the latter board’s June 4 meeting. As a result, Brown continued, he had forwarded the video link for to the city commissioners.

Continuing disagreement

Commissioner Willie Shaw. News Leader image

Commissioner Shaw, however, remained adamant on July 15 that a portion of revenue from a TIF district for The Bay be devoted to Newtown. Leaders of that community, which is part of his district, he continued, have worked hard over the past years to lower the crime rate and achieve other improvements. Yet, Newtown still has far to go in terms of economic development, he added.

“Every dollar made there is taken outside of that area,” Shaw pointed out, referring to the fact that owners of the businesses are not residents of the community. “We’re being displaced in Newtown.”

“Sarasota has the opportunity to become one of the most thriving and innovative communities in the country,” he added. “Why wouldn’t we want to make all of Sarasota — all of Sarasota — the place that people want to come to. … I cannot see where one side doesn’t help the other side at this time.”

After applause rang out in the City Commission Chambers, Mayor Liz Alpert banged the gavel and reminded audience members that the city’s rules for decorum call for them to remain quiet.

Then Vice Mayor Ahearn-Koch said that, although she was interested in other potential uses of the TIF revenue when she and her colleagues discussed the issue in May, she was willing to talk with the county commissioners about their views. Nonetheless, she pointed out, “They are elected by the same people that we are elected by.”

Ahearn-Koch was the first to propose the joint meeting with the county commissioners. Commissioner Freeland Eddie immediately agreed with her.

“I, too, support a joint meeting,” Shaw added.

Referencing the May 20 discussion, Mayor Alpert told her colleagues, “The TIF, commissioners, is not the mechanism for doing all of those things,” regardless of how good the ideas are.

“I understand Commissioner Shaw’s passion for what needs to happen in Newtown,” she continued. “But the TIF just needs to be directed to [the Bay],” she added, because the County Commission will not agree to anything else.

“Let me make this clear to you and others,” Shaw responded. “I’m not speaking just for Newtown.” In 10 years or 30 years, he continued — referring to potential terms for the TIF — “when the tide rises, we all rise.”

“I don’t agree with you,” Alpert replied.

City Manager Tom Barwin. Photo courtesy City of Sarasota

Then Barwin again broached the potential expense of a new performing arts hall, estimating it at more than $150 million.

“Two hundred [million],” Shaw interjected.

“You have to borrow that sum of money,” Barwin said. TIF revenue could be used to pay off the bonds the city would issue for that project, he added.

Moreover, Alpert pointed out, “It’s probably going to take at least 15 to 20 years just to build [The Bay] out.”

Barwin noted that the bonds probably would be issued with a 25-year lifetime, to ensure they would cover the entire construction period for The Bay.

In response to questions from Freeland Eddie, City Attorney Robert Fournier explained that any TIF agreement between the City and County commissions would specify how the revenue would be spent. “There are different ways that you could do it,” he added, referring to apportionment of the funds.

When she asked whether the City Commission could make the new performing arts hall its top priority, Fournier said he believed that would be possible.

Then Deputy City Manager Brown told the commissioners that, based on discussions with county staff, city staff feels the county leaders would expect the city to devote the same percentage of TIF revenue to The Bay that the county would direct to the project, out of the county’s share of the property tax funds. Still, he said, “You don’t have to put 100% into the TIF district.”

“None of this was brought out in previous conversations,” Shaw responded.

At Commissioner Hagen Brody’s request, Alpert invited A.G. Lafley, founding CEO of the Bay Park Conservancy — which will oversee fundraising and operations of The Bay and manage events there — to offer any comments he felt were pertinent.

“The more focused the tax increment financing is,” Lafley said, “the better,” based on research the Conservancy had undertaken.

Another important consideration, Lafley continued, is the geographic area that will benefit from the new amenities. “My only recommendation there is to keep it tight.”

Bill Waddill, the implementation director for the Conservancy, suggested that he and Lafley could work with county staff members “to prepare some alternatives” for use of the TIF revenue that the city commissioners could review. “I think that becomes a good framework for a joint meeting.”

“I think that’s an excellent suggestion,” Mayor Alpert told him.