County commissioners voice reservations about committing to funding for The Bay project on City of Sarasota waterfront

Topics range from tax increment financing district to lack of unanimity among city commissioners about how master plan should proceed  

A rendering shows an aerial view of The Bay. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Sarasota County Commission Chair Charles Hines was blunter than his colleagues this week in conveying concerns about a nonprofit organization’s desire for the county to contribute to the potentially $100- to $150-million creation of new park and cultural and arts facilities on 53 bayfront acres the City of Sarasota owns.

Following a March 13 presentation by Bill Waddill, managing director of the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC), Hines pointed to the fact that the Sarasota City Commission has had several split votes on aspects of the plans for the project called The Bay.

Hines alluded to the fact that the City Commission will conduct a special meeting on Saturday, March 16, during which it once again will have to vote on whether the former G.WIZ science museum can be demolished to make way for the vision of Phase One of The Bay. The latter would encompass about 9 or 10 acres on the southern part of the city’s bayfront acreage.

“The message is that they’re not united yet,” Hines said of the city commissioners. “That’s the political message that’s being sent.”

The City Commission’s decisions, he stressed, “should be unanimous, that this project is the biggest deal to come to downtown Sarasota ever.” He added that he believes downtown Sarasota never would see a project that would surpass The Bay.

Hines further pointed to controversies involving other city-owned properties, including split votes in 2017 approving a lease for the city’s Lido Pavilion and Pool. After public uproar over that proposal intensified, the firm that won the lease — Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners LLC — asked to withdraw from the lease. The City Commission on Feb. 18 agreed to that request and voted 4-1 to reimburse almost all the limited liability company’s out-of-pocket expenses for years of work on that project.

Just this week, Hines continued, members of the public made it clear they do not favor a proposal for the Sarasota Orchestra to relocate from the bayfront to the city’s Payne Park.

Before the County Commission entertains a formal request for funding for The Bay, Hines indicated to Waddill, the Bay Park Conservancy needs to iron out all the lingering issues with the City Commission.

“We have only so much time, money, political will,” Hines pointed out. “You all really have to make this easy for this commission or future commissions to say, ‘We’re in.’”

A graphic shown to the County Commission on March 13 provides details about the project and its guiding principles. Image courtesy of Sarasota County

Other commissioners voiced concerns about entering into a new tax increment financing [TIF] district agreement with the City Commission to help pay for the development of The Bay. Just the previous day, the County Commission approved a series of resolutions to end a years-long dispute over a final payment city staff said the county owed into the Downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) Trust Fund. (See the related article in this issue.)

“I can’t imagine me voting for a 30-year TIF,” Commissioner Alan Maio emphasized to Waddill.

Last year, Waddill broached the idea of a TIF with the County Commission, and he indicated again during his March 13 presentation that the tax value of the area encompassing the city bayfront land would be expected to grow as the master plan is implemented. “Certainly, we believe that a new park will increase property tax values.”

With a TIF district, the tax value of property within designated boundaries in a specific year is set as the baseline. Then, as the value of the land rises, the resulting increase in property tax revenue is diverted to a fund for use in that district.

Perhaps he would consider approving a 20-year CRA trust fund agreement, Maio told Waddill. Still, Maio continued, the County Commission would have to have significant representation on the board organized to oversee the trust fund for The Bay, and the Office of the County Attorney would have to participate in drafting the CRA documents.

Maio further noted his concern about setting the precedent of creating a new CRA, as other jurisdictions in the county have talked of the desire for such a funding mechanism, and the commissioners have been reluctant to grant those requests because of issues related to the Downtown Sarasota CRA.

This graphic shows the 53 city acres as of 2018. Image courtesy of Sarasota County

Moreover, Maio told Waddill, “When we strain here for the last 20 years, not raising taxes and trying to do that again this year, this [TIF] would eat into our piece of ad valorem taxes.”

Commissioner Michael Moran asked Waddill for clarification about whether The Bay would be self-sustaining as a result of the revenue it is expected to generate.

Ticket sales for events and rentals of pavilions for weddings, for example, would bring in part of the revenue for the maintenance and operation of The Bay, Waddill explained. Additionally, the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC) anticipates that, because the City of Sarasota already pays to maintain the 53 acres where the project will be located, that the city will continue to do so after The Bay has been created, Waddill added.

These are the members of the board of the Bay Park Conservancy. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Cathy Layton, chair of the BPC, pointed out that the nonprofit has not put anything into writing that says the city or the county would have to cover any funding shortfalls. The BPC is focusing on additional revenue potential from memberships, for example, she added — as in a Friends of The Bay organization — as well as corporate sponsorships and philanthropy to help cover ongoing expenses.

While Commissioner Nancy Detert said she has been “very impressed” with the accomplishments of the series of nonprofit groups that have worked on The Bay, “My problem with it is it’s not our property.”

She added, “I, too, do not want to get into a convoluted partnership where you’re married and chained together, and you’re all jumping overboard together,” referring to a new CRA. “To chain ourselves to [the City Commission] again, based on shaky details, that’s going to take a lot of work.”

Further, Detert said, “We always say we want to be the last money in and not the first money.”

Commissioner Christian Ziegler concurred with her on the latter comment.

A creation in progress

A graphic shows details about the Phase One concept for The Bay. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

During the discussion, Waddill explained that it most likely will take 10 to 15 years to build out The Bay.

He stressed that the master plan was developed after intensive engagement with the public, “probably 10,000 or so distinct individuals.” The Boston-area design team Sasaki — which was hired by the BPC’s predecessor nonprofit, the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization — conducted numerous meetings and engaged in social media outreach to create the concept for The Bay, Waddill explained. “I’ve never been involved in anything quite like this.”

(Prior to joining the SBPO, Waddill was a senior vice president with the Sarasota consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates.)

Among the overarching themes the public conveyed to the Sasaki team, he continued, was the desire for an “open, green accessible park” with the ability to see and enjoy Sarasota Bay.

Along with the cultural and arts amenities planned for The Bay, Waddill noted, the project would transform 70% of the 53 city acres into green or pervious areas, instead of the impervious spaces dominating the property, from which pollutants run into Sarasota Bay after rainfall.

Waddill also noted that the elevation of the site along the bay runs from 4.5 feet to 14.5 feet. The higher portion, he said, encompasses the Municipal Auditorium and Art Center Sarasota. “That’s dramatic for Florida to have 10 feet of elevation change.”

The BPC expects Phase One of the project to cost about $20 million, he explained. To be able to “cut the ribbon” on that in two to three years, he added, “We think it’s going to be a majority of private dollars [paying for it].” He said the expectation is that 70% to 75% of the expense will be covered by private contributions.

Already, he pointed out, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation of Sarasota has given the BPC close to $1 million to remove exotic vegetative species from the Phase One area and take other steps to improve the environmental quality of that portion of the site.

A rendering shows suggested activities in the Phase One area of The Bay. Image courtesy of Sarasota County

Projections show that it will cost between $1 million and $2 million a year to operate and maintain the Phase One area, Waddill said. “[It will] probably [be] in the $4 million range” to handle the entire site, after The Bay has been completed, he added.

The board members, he added, also believe that 20 to 25 different funding sources will be needed to build the structures on the property, other than a new performing arts hall. The BPC expects 50% of the overall expense of the work will come from private sources, he noted.

In response to questions from Commissioner Ziegler — who noted that he is the only one of the county board members who lives in the city of Sarasota — Waddill explained that part of the master plan calls for a new city performing arts venue to replace the Van Wezel. That is expected to cost approximately $250 million, he said, but the Van Wezel Foundation will be raising funds for that project and overseeing its construction. The Bay Conservancy’s role with the latter project, he continued, “is to create a great place” for the new hall.

Ziegler also indicated he had heard concerns from boaters, worried that the master plan will impede their access to the water.

After holding a special workshop last year for boaters — which was attended by about 125 people — Waddill said that the SBPO had organized a committee of “about 25 or so” boaters who have been meeting to refine that part of the concept for the bayfront. The proposal is to move the city boat ramp to the north, Waddill continued, with expanded parking and amenities, such as new dining options and improved restrooms.