City manager indicates willingness to consider allowing public parking on at least part of the former Sarasota Police Department headquarters site

City’s refusal to transfer the Ringling Boulevard land to the county as promised in a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding arises during the CRA conflict dispute discussions this week

The site of the former Sarasota Police Department has stood vacant on Ringling Boulevard since 2012. File photo

Sarasota’s city manager told the Sarasota County administrator this week that city staff would look into providing public parking on the Ringling Boulevard site of the former Sarasota Police Department headquarters.

Contention over the ownership of that property in downtown Sarasota recently bubbled up during a County Commission workshop, when Commissioner Charles Hines mentioned a 2003 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by city and county leaders that called for the land to be turned over to the county. The property has remained in city possession.

In response to that Feb. 17 county board discussion, on March 2, City Attorney Robert Fournier sent copies of materials to City Manager Tom Barwin to back up his belief that the city no longer has any obligation to make the transfer.

Hines raised the issue as he voiced frustration about insufficient parking for members of the public who need to visit county government buildings in downtown Sarasota, including the Supervisor of Elections Office and the Office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller.

On April 11, County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh referenced the 2003 MOU as city and county staffs met in the first step to try to resolve a dispute over the timing of the county’s final payment into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Trust Fund (CRA). (See the related story in this issue.)

A graphic shows the facilities served by the Central Energy Plant in downtown Sarasota. Image courtesy Sarasota County

At one point, Barwin brought up the process underway to create a master plan for a bayfront cultural and public district on 42 acres the city owns. He called the future of that site “a vitally critical issue for both of our governments to consider.”

Barwin also referenced the large expected expense of new infrastructure for the arts, along with other planned city improvements that will serve all Sarasota County residents. “As realistic people,” he continued, “we should be putting our heads together now to figure out how to do that heavy lifting in the future.” Then he suggested the city and county staff members consider an amended CRA as a means of settling the dispute at the heart of the April 11 session.

“It really feels a bit like a prior discussion about [the former Police Department site],” DeMarsh told Barwin.

In 2003, then-County Administrator Jim Ley had threatened city leaders with the prospect of the county’s relocating its administrative operations outside the city. In an effort to ensure that did not happen, city leaders offered certain concessions, including the transfer of the Police Department site to the county after a new headquarters for the department was completed on Adams Lane.

“There are important discussions in the future, clearly,” DeMarsh said on April 11, “but we’ve got to figure out how to get past this dispute to even have discussions about things like that.”

The expansive Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall parking lot is an element of the planning process for new amenities under the Bayfront 20:20 proposal. File photo

Barwin pointed out that “so much has changed” since the 2003 MOU was signed by leaders of the City and County commissions. He understood, he added, that the property at that time was envisioned as the site of an expanded judicial complex. “Is there any county need now? Is a judicial [facility] off the radar screen at that site?”

No funding has been allocated for that type of project, County Administrator Tom Harmer replied, but “there’s still long-range planning that addresses the need to expand the judicial center.”

The county’s most pressing need in downtown Sarasota — which is part of the same master plan as the expanded courthouse complex — is a new Central Energy Plant (CEP), Harmer continued. Still, if the city “would complete the transfer [of the former Police Department site] as originally intended,” he said, “we’d like to address the parking needs in that area.”

When City Attorney Fournier asked what the CEP is, Harmer explained that it uses chilled water to provide air conditioning for county government buildings in downtown Sarasota. (Jeff Lowdermilk, director of the county’s General Services Department, has pointed out that it serves the county detention center and the Terrace Building, where the Supervisor of Elections and Tax Collector’s offices are located, among other facilities.)

County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh. File photo

Would the former Police Department site be suitable for a new CEP?, Fournier asked.

County staff will be working with energy firms on the project to determine the best site for the new CEP, Harmer responded, but that location “hasn’t been ruled out …”

Harmer added, “Our first thought [is] about parking [on the property]. It’s sitting there; it’s fenced off; it’s grassed.”

Barwin said he did not want to fold the issue into the CRA conflict dispute resolution process, “but if you need parking, that’s something maybe we can help you with, on at least part of the site. So we’ll take a look at that.”

“I think the public needs parking,” Harmer told him.