Conference center no longer a County Commission priority unless private company wants to build a facility

Board members agree staff should not spend more time on idea of public facility, given other demands on county resources

A slide shows the history of discussions about a conference center in Sarasota County. Image courtesy Sarasota County

It took just shy of 12 minutes on May 8 for the current Sarasota County commissioners to put to bed, so to speak, a topic that many of their predecessors also failed to pursue.

A few hours after their intense discussion about expensive measures to improve water quality (see the related article in this issue), Chair Charles Hines told Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho that Botelho did not need to spend any more time on a county-led initiative to build a conference center or multi-purpose facility.

However, commissioners did indicate their willingness to talk with private entities that might be interested in pursuing such a project.

During a presentation to the board, Botelho highlighted facets of the research staff had undertaken after the commissioners — during their December 2018 retreat — made the addition of a conference center to the county one of their top priorities for 2019.

The very first slide Botelho showed the board on May 8 noted that conference center discussions dated back to 1965 in Sarasota County. In that year, the slide said, an architectural firm submitted to the county a master plan for a civic center site in the city of Sarasota. Initiatives followed in 1983, 1993, 2002, 2006 and 2018. In the meantime, Botelho noted, Manatee County opened a convention center in Palmetto in 1985, and in 2012, that facility was renovated and renamed the Bradenton Area Convention Center.

Staff research also found “lots of different conference centers in the state,” Botelho said. Staff focused on those of medium size in public ownership.

Among those he reviewed with the board was the Manatee facility, which encompasses 32,400 square feet. That conference center has a funding subsidy of $600,000 this fiscal year out of Manatee County’s Tourist Development Tax revenue, Botelho pointed out.

This slide offers details about the Bradenton Area Convention Center. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Charlotte Harbor Event and Conference Center in Punta Gorda, he continued, has 44,000 square feet. Although Charlotte County owns it, he continued, it is operated by a private company. The Charlotte County Commission has budgeted $635,000 as a subsidy for that conference center for this fiscal year, the slide said.

One facility he found particularly interesting, Botelho continued, is the Havert L. Fenn Center in Fort Pierce, which also serves as a special needs shelter if a hurricane is expected to strike that area. It is owned and operated by St. Lucie County. Built in 2008, it has 35,000 square feet.

This slide provides information about the Harbourside Event Center in Fort Myers. Image courtesy Sarasota County

After concluding his presentation, Botelho said staff was seeking direction about how the board members wanted to proceed.

“I felt it was time for us to have this conversation,” Hines responded. “There’s always this on-again, off-again discussion that this community is lacking this type of facility.”

Hines added, “I thought it was a good message to send to the private sector” that the commission might be interested in a partnership to build such a facility.

However, “Considering all the other things we have on our plate right now, and some things that we’ve added,” Hines said he wants to hear whether any private entities still are interested in a conference center project in Sarasota County. “I just don’t believe we have the expertise or the time or the folks to [build and manage a facility]. … Yet, “I’d hate to see [this] die again, because I really believe it would work here.”

Hines also noted the requests the board already has received about assisting with the funding of The Bay project on the City of Sarasota waterfront, the Selby Gardens master plan in Sarasota and Mote Marine Laboratory’s aquarium at Benderson Park.

“I’m struggling with asking our staff to spend really any more time going forward on this,” Hines added, until, perhaps, a developer of large hotels or a company interested in a standalone facility comes forward.

This slide has details about the Fenn Center in Fort Pierce. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“I would wholeheartedly agree,” Commissioner Nancy Detert said. “The time is not right this year to deal with that. We need to protect our infrastructure, make sure we’re not rotting at the core on our water issues and air quality issues.”

Moreover, Detert told her colleagues, “I just don’t want to get into another quagmire deal over a convention center.”

The Manatee County Commission, she pointed out, has struggled with its facility since that was built in 1985.

Given the history Botelho had presented, Commissioner Michael Moran said with a laugh, “if you’re the private sector, do you look at that and wonder if we’re serious or not?”

Nonetheless, Moran continued, “I am incredibly eager to hear from the private sector …” He added that he thought a private developer “would be pleasantly surprised” to find the commission would be helpful with a project. The county still has some parcels, he said, where he feels a conference center would be appropriate.

Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho. Rachel Hackney photo

Moran also pointed out that he is the commission’s representative on the Sarasota County Fair Board, which oversees the fairgrounds.

He referenced Botelho’s history slide, which showed that in 2002, the Fair Board commissioned a report on the construction of a convention center next to Robarts Arena on the fairgrounds, located on Fruitville Road.

He has told the other Fair Board members, Moran continued, “They should not come out of that building with one more half-baked idea of what to do to that parcel.” If the Fair Board can find a private sector partner “with a very, very clear solution,” he added, the members should come to the commission with a proposal.

“I’m aligned exactly where you are,” Hines told Moran.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler also concurred with the need for the county to spend its money “elsewhere right now. …

I don’t believe we need to be in the event planning business.”

However, he added, “I would love to get someone from the private sector to come in here.”

Summing up his colleagues’ remarks, Hines told Botelho not to make any more phone calls, but to be willing to accept calls if a private entity does prove to have an interest in building a conference center.

Finally, addressing Botelho with a laugh, Hines said, “Keep the research, ’cause you might use it again.”