Downtown event policies remain untouched

A whiff of change for the noise ordinance?

The City Commission June 6 did not implement new policies for events in downtown Sarasota. Photo by Norman Schimmel

Civic fears that Five Points Park would be put off-limits for downtown events proved groundless Wednesday, June 6. But that didn’t stop 24 residents from trooping down to the microphone to let the city commissioners know what they thought.

The special city commission meeting was billed as a review of zoning enclaves (which moved forward) and special events policies and procedures. Because Five Points Park is central to many special events, there were fears the commission might … well … do something. Nobody knew what. But lots of people came to City Hall prepared to tell the commissioners what they shouldn’t do with Five Points Park.

The exercise was disarmed by two city staffers who provided a count-your-blessings briefing to the commissioners and a large audience of concerned residents. Debbie Perez and Toni Welicki gave a point-by-point review of the city’s special events.

The background for the special meeting was a jumbled mess of conflicted history. Downtown merchants were grumbling that special events were stealing customers and taking parking spaces. Downtown residents have grumbled about homeless people in Five Points Park, leading the city commissioners to remove the benches. And politically minded citizens were concerned the commissioners might rule out Five Points for demonstrations and protests.

Perez and Welicki combed through the tangle after meeting with vendors and merchants and the pubic, and they left behind calmer waters.

A busy downtown

Sarasota this year will host 85 special events, including festivals and runs, block parties and crafts fairs. Of the total number, 36 are set for the downtown core. And that’s where Perez and Welicki concentrated their efforts. Perez manages the city’s auditoriums – one on U.S. 41; the other, at Payne Park. Welicki somehow was assigned to handle special events paperwork in the Public Works Department two decades ago.

Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown kicked off the meeting by taking two hot issues off the table. “We are not dealing with demonstrations or protests,” he said. “And staff is not recommending the closing of Five Points Park.”

Still, a couple of changes to procedure may be in the offing after the discussion. The two-day events sponsored by the Downtown Sarasota Alliance may be required to extend their hours, perhaps to 9 p.m. And the much-maligned noise ordinance may come back for a review.

Perez and Welicki posed their presentation as a series of 17 policy questions for the commission to ponder. Should there be a limit to alcohol sales, they asked. Most of the earnings for a nonprofit sponsor come from alcohol sales, they noted.

Should food vendors be allowed to set up in front of a restaurant? Some say that situation steals business, they noted. But for a one-block event, that might prove impossible to prevent.

The huge majority of annual events – 81 of the 85  – support a charity. Kathyrn Shea, president and CEO of the Florida Center for Early Childhood, was the first member of the public to speak. “We’ve benefitted for more than 20 years. We built our facilities here and in North Port [with money from these events],” she said.

Ann Jackson has been a downtown business owner for 32 years. “Forget any non-compete,” she said. “These events bring people into my shop year after year.” Restaurateur Paul Mattison agreed. “Our sales are always better when there’s an event on the street,” he said. “The process works as it is.”

On the political side, Turner Moore with the recent Harvey Milk Festival told the commissioners, “You’re lucky to have a vibrant downtown. We had 5,000 people attend this year.”

From a member of Occupy Sarasota to a volunteer for the motorcycle mania of Thunder By the Bay, speakers said let it alone; it ain’t broke.

Peter Fanning, the president of the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association, was the sole voice asking for change. “We need a clear and concise purpose statement for the policy. Why do we have events downtown?” he asked. “We should establish a committee to bring back a set of recommendations for the purpose, intent and procedure for approval of events.”

Several speakers brought up Sarasota’s infamous noise ordinance. “If you don’t like noise, move to the country,” testified Christopher Young. “You need to focus on the noise ordinance.”

During the brief City Commission discussion about any potential changes in current policy, Commissioner Paul Caragiulo made a radical-for-Sarasota proposal. “I’m not crazy about the effect of the noise ordinance,” said the downtown restaurateur. “We should take a look at it again, a little more progressive look. Downtown is not a gated community. It’s the center of commerce.”