County to issue $29 million in bonds to help pay for first phase of improvements for 17th Street Regional Park

‘Championship Field’ expected to be able to host major softball tournaments

This is the concept plan for the park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Having expressed their enthusiasm for the latest plans during their regular meeting on Oct. 24, the Sarasota County commissioners on Dec. 12 unanimously approved the issuance of $29 million in bonds to help pay for the first phase of the 17th Street Regional Park in Sarasota.

In late October, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department, told the commissioners that staff expects construction of Phase 1 to begin approximately in May 2024, with completion anticipated in the fall of 2025.

Staff members of Tandem Construction of Sarasota, which will handle the work, “think they can save five months” by tackling the entire initiative at once, instead of undertaking it in phases, she explained.

The Dec. 12 agenda item was listed as a Presentation Upon Request, meaning no staff remarks would be provided unless a board member wanted to hear remarks. As no one did, and no one had signed up to address the financing mechanism, Commissioner Michael Moran made the motion to approve the bond resolution, and Commissioner Joe Neunder seconded the motion.

“I think this is just going to be an amazing economic driver for this community,” Moran said of the park.

The anticipated expense of Phase 1 is $65 million, Rissler told the commissioners on Oct. 24. A combination of funding sources had been settled on, she explained, through discussions that she and her staff had held with Kim Radtke, director of the county’s Office of Financial Management, and Radtke’s staff.

Those funding sources are North County Park Impact Fees; proceeds from the sale of county property at the intersection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Tuttle Avenue in Newtown, which originally was planned for the site of a regional park but will be home to an affordable housing development; revenue from the county’s Tourist Development Tax (TDT) — or “bed tax,” which is collected from hosts of accommodations rented for six months or less time; funding from both the Surtax 3 and Surtax 4 programs; $4 million in cash out of TDT revenue; and $3 million from the county’s Economic Development Incentive Fund (EDIF).

The Surtax programs impose an additional penny of sales tax, for a total of 7%, with the proceeds used for a wide variety of undertakings, not only in the unincorporated areas of the county, but also in the municipalities. The Sarasota County School Board gets 25% of the money, under the terms of the program.

The Surtax 4 program, which voters approved during the November 2022 General Election, will begin when the Surtax 3 program ends on Dec. 31, 2024.

This chart shows the breakdown of funding from the various sources. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Artificial turf and more distant fences

During her Oct. 24 presentation, Rissler showed the commissioners a series of slides depicting renderings of the Phase 1 facets of the park, which is located at 4570 and 4730 17th St. in Sarasota. The park includes the Miss Sarasota Softball Complex; it has an adjacent 5-acre county utility site (monitoring wells in that area must remain in place, Rissler emphasized on Oct. 24), and connections to other public properties, such as the Circus Hammock, which comprises environmentally sensitive land. Eventually, plans call for a connection to the City of Sarasota’s Bobby Jones Golf Club and Nature Park, which is located on Circus Boulevard to the south and west of the 17th Street complex

Phase 1 will encompass a number of new athletic fields, Rissler noted, while Phase 2 will focus on a community park that will be created to the west of the site.

In Phase 1, she continued, eight fields for the youth softball will be constructed, including a “Championship Field.” A new adult softball complex has been planned with three fields.

Referring to the Championship Field, she noted that its orientation will be to the northeast, which is the best angle for sunlight.

“This will be one of the only complexes in the Southeast to be built with the new 220-foot outfield fences,” which is what women’s college and pro softball teams began using about a year-and-a-half ago, Rissler pointed out.

“We’re already fielding inquiries,” she noted, about the future scheduling of tournaments on that field.

Then, to the north, she noted on a slide, the adult softball fields will be constructed with 300-foot fences.

This rendering shows more details about the youth softball complex. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Rissler also pointed out that staff would be able to bring in temporary fencing to extend the youth softball complex to include 11 fields.

She added that the Championship Field will have permanent bleachers, though the other seven fields will not.
“We did a lot of research,” she explained, which led to the conclusion that many people enjoy bringing their own chairs to sporting events in the community. “We will have shade,” she noted.

Nonetheless, Rissler said, staff would be able to bring in what she called “tip and roll bleachers,” if such seating was needed for an event.

Then she directed the board members to look at the four fields on the right of that slide. “Those will be artificial turf,” she said. “We’re very excited about that,” she added, noting that they will be the first such fields in the county’s park system. “Hopefully, not the last.”

Eventually, she pointed out, as part of a later phase, staff hopes to have two more full fields in that area.

The bottom two fields in Phase 1 will be designed to accommodate both football and soccer games, Rissler continued, while the top two will have permanent lines for soccer and lacrosse. “We’re trying to keep two sets of sports on each without too many lines on the artificial turf.”

Yet another facet of the design of the Youth Softball Complex is a breezeway where a restroom trailer could be located for use during tournaments that would bring in large numbers of people. Space also is available for vendor booths and food trucks, she said. A permanent concession building is planned, as well, though use of a restroom trailer and food trucks, Rissler explained, makes possible a smaller concession facility.

Space would be available along the walkway between fields for a restroom trailer, vendor booths and food trucks. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Then, facing south would be the four artificial turf rectangles, Rissler continued, with “plenty of space for spectators.” A restroom/storage/concession structure would be located adjacent to that section of the park, she added.

Next, Rissler explained about the “value engineering” discussions that had been conducted to try to pare the expense of the Phase 1 facilities. She directed the commissioners’ attention to a water body at the end of the multipurpose fields. “One of the biggest expenses of the project,” she emphasized, is dirt. “I have learned a whole lot about dirt over the course of the last two years, more than I will ever want to know, ever, in the future,” she stressed. “Dirt is really expensive.”

Therefore, the plans for the pond had been adjusted. Dirt from excavating that area can be used for the grading of the fields, while the pond will provide the capacity for stormwater on the site, she said.

“What we lost in that,” she acknowledged, “is the possibility in the future of four additional fields to the north.” Yet, the potential exists for three smaller fields between the four larger ones to the south and two larger ones to the north. That middle section also could serve as a practice area, she added.

This rendering shows the stormwater pond to the south. Image courtesy Sarasota County

When she completed her presentation that day, Commissioner Neunder responded, “Awesome. … Phenomenal,” adding that the complex would make possible “hours and hours of enjoyment” for children, parents and grandparents. In fact, he told Rissler, the members of the Adult Softball League team in Venice are “salivating quite profusely, from what I’m hearing,” about the plans for the 17th Street Regional Park.

Neunder added that he believes he and his colleagues all agree that when the project has been completed, “The tournaments that we’re going to be able to have are going to be second to none.”

That day, Commissioner Moran also made the motion to approve the updated funding strategy that Rissler had outlined.

“Since I’ve been here,” he said, “this is the most satisfying motion I’ve ever made.” In response to the apparent surprise of a couple of his colleagues in response to that remark, Moran added, “I’m serious.” (He first was elected to the board in November 2016.)

Then, addressing Rissler, Moran continued, “This is truly a legacy project. … I think this is going to have success beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.”

The athletic complex will be an economic stimulus for the county, he said.