Celebration conducted near Payne Park in downtown Sarasota
“Two years and nine months ahead of the original schedule.” That phrase was repeated several times, with emphasis, on March 3 as Sarasota County and City of Sarasota leaders — along with an abundance of representatives of other groups, and biking enthusiasts — gathered for the opening of the final segment of the North Extension of The Legacy Trail.
Under a tent on the grounds of Concordia Lutheran Church, near Payne Park in downtown Sarasota, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), told the crowd in front of her and behind her, “We are excited to be opening this stretch of trail as another step to our ‘race to completion.’”
The latter phrase also is one she has referenced often as she and her staff have worked to satisfy the County Commission’s desire to complete the extensions from the Venice Train Depot to downtown Sarasota and to North Port as quickly as possible.
Two other key parts of the North Extension — overpasses at Clark and Bee Ridge roads — will be handled by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), with their completion due in 2024.
On March 3, when Rissler first noted that the North Extension was finished more than three years ahead of the original schedule, audience members cheered and clapped. “I would say that’s probably a personal best for most people in a race,” she added. “This is a huge milestone.”
The same day, Rissler pointed out, the Sarasota Springs Trailhead — located on the south side of Webber Street near the segment from Proctor Road to Bahia Vista Street — also opened. It includes a parking area, a restroom, picnic shelters and a small playground, she added. “We are really excited to be able to provide this community this additional amenity.”
In fact, she continued, “I will tell you, when we started this project,” the focus may have been on the extension of The Legacy Trail itself, but “what we have gotten out of this … is three new parks, as well.”
A few months ago, Rissler noted, the Ashton Trailhead was opened to the public. Its playground already has become very popular, she pointed out; she encouraged parents and grandparents, especially, to visit it.
Then, this summer, Rissler continued, the Pompano Trailhead will become available to the public. When she announced that that trailhead off Fruitville Road will have 12 lighted pickleball courts, murmurs swept through the audience. “Yes,” she said. “Make sure you share that with all your pickleball friends, especially the ones that call me every day.” The latter comment generated laughter.
Along with those courts, Rissler noted, the Pompano Trailhead will have a playground, spots for food trucks and a refurbished building that will be used as a community room, with some space for county offices. The structure formerly was the county site for drivers’ license renewals.
The Pompano Trailhead will be adjacent to the county’s Babe Ruth Park and close to the Sarasota County Fairgrounds, she said.
Further, Rissler continued, “The North Port [Legacy Trail] Connector will also be ready to open later this summer. … We have so much to look forward to and still so much to celebrate.”
Other facets of the Trail, with more to come
When Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, vice chair of the county board, stepped to the podium after Rissler, he, too, emphasized the fact that the final North Extension would be opening two years and nine months ahead of schedule, five months after county leaders marked the formal opening of Segments 1 and 2.
“I call the Trail the gift that keeps on giving,” Cutsinger added. It is close to 14 parks, and it ultimately will connect to Warm Mineral Springs in North Port, as well as Benderson Park, which is close to University Parkway, he pointed out.
Then, noting what he called “the bigger picture,” Cutsinger said that The Legacy Trail will be part of the 336-mile Gulf Trails System, which runs from north of Tampa “all the way down to Naples.” The Trust for Public Land — which worked with Sarasota County leaders to create The Legacy Trail — has hired former County Commissioner Charles Hines “to spearhead that effort,” Cutsinger said.
Additionally, Cutsinger told the audience, the county commissioners have made “sidewalks and safe routes to schools” one of their top priorities. About 27 schools are within 1 linear mile of The Legacy Trail, he noted; 45 are within 2 linear miles of the route.
He asked for a show of hands of those who were able to walk to school when they were growing up. “Wouldn’t it be great if we get those safe routes connected to the Trail?” he asked.
Cutsinger also pointed out just how popular the Trail is. When the number of users reached the 250,000-person mark in a given year, he said that was noteworthy. Yet, “In the last 12 months,” he continued, the Trail saw “over half-a-million users — 524,000, to be exact.”
And that milestone was achieved before the final North Extension segment was completed, he stressed. “One day, we’ll be talking about the millionth visitor.”
Following Cutsinger at the podium, Commissioner Christian Ziegler offered the board’s appreciation to the Friends of the Legacy Trail, the nonprofit organization that advocated for years for extensions of the bicycle and walking path.
Noting that the crowd that day was one of the largest he had seen for such a county event, Ziegler added that county staff had told him that the Friends members “shoot out one email, and they all show up,” prompting more laughter.
Ziegler emphasized the passion of the members of the Friends of the Legacy Trail and all the support they had provided the county in working on the extensions.
He also pointed to voters’ support of the projects, as they approved the 2018 General Election referendum that enabled the county to issue millions in bonds to achieve the undertaking being celebrated that morning.
Then Ziegler talked of future prospects for the Trail, if it is extended — as planned — through Newtown to the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport and on up to the University Town Center complex north of Benderson Park. “We can become an Ironman [Triathlon] destination,” he pointed out. The swimming portion of that event could be held at Benderson Park, Ziegler said, with the 26-mile run taking place on the Trail. Further, the County Commission hopes to accelerate construction of a flyover of Interstate 75 near Benderson Park, he added; that structure would enable Ironman competitors to pursue their 113-mile bicycle event through Central Florida before coming back to Sarasota County.
“Talk about economic development,” Ziegler said. “There’s nothing better than bringing an Ironman [competition] to town.”
A ‘shout-out’ to county staff
During her final remarks, Rissler of PRNR extended her appreciation to Carolyn Eastwood, director of the county’s Capital Projects Department, which Rissler called “the engine that makes this work,” as well as members of the county’s Communications Department and her own staff, “especially Jon Robinson and Megan Eidel.”
Robinson is manager of the Natural Areas and Trails Division, while Eidel is the manager of trails.
“Words can’t even begin to thank you for the time, the effort and maybe the loss of years of your life,” Rissler said to them, as her voice quavered.
Rissler then related the fact that she had been in her job only about three weeks when the 2018 Legacy Trail bond referendum passed, and the county commissioners directed her to make haste with completion of the North Extension and North Port Connector. She said she was not sure how she was going to manage that, given the fact that county projects do not always go smoothly.
She looked at Robinson, she added, and told him The Legacy Trail undertaking would be “pretty much all you’re going to do until you retire.”
“He probably knows way more than he ever wanted to know about construction management,” Rissler said.
As she concluded her remarks, Rissler invited everyone, “Now, let’s go celebrate!”