Funding mechanism for the Bay Park on Sarasota waterfront wins full City Commission support

County Commission to vote formally on proposal on Nov. 4

This is the planned TIF district for the Bay Park. Image courtesy Sarasota County

It took approximately two hours and 20 minutes, but the Sarasota City Commission on Oct. 19 unanimously approved a proposed agreement with the Sarasota County Commission for a 30-year, tax-increment financing [TIF] mechanism to provide an estimated $190 million for construction of the 53-acre Bay Park on the city’s waterfront.

A second unanimous vote gave formal approval to the proposed ordinance regarding the TIF process.

The County Commission is scheduled to hold its public hearing on the agreement and ordinance on Nov. 4, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told The Sarasota News Leader.

Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie made both motions, with the first including three proposed changes to the TIF agreement. The first calls for a modification of the makeup of the governing body for the TIF district, from which the revenue will be generated. The County Commission proposed that one member of that board represent either the general public or the Bay Park Conservancy, which is the nonprofit organization working with the City of Sarasota on management of the Bay Park and private fundraising for the project.

City commissioners agreed this week that they preferred to have a member of the public take the fifth seat. Bill Waddill, the chief implementation officer for the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC), told the commissioners that he and A.G. Lafley, the founding CEO of the BPC, “are perfectly comfortable with [that].”

In his opinion, Waddill added, the County Commission would not object to that change.

Second, at the suggestion of Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch, the commissioners called for inclusion of language in the agreement in regard to multi-modal projects to help residents and visitors reach The Bay Park. The original sentence said, “Tax increment funds may also be used for new bicycle and pedestrian amenities within the District.”

The members of the Sarasota City Commission meet via Zoom on Oct. 19. Bill Waddill, chief implementation officer of the Bay Park Conservancy, is at far left on the bottom row. A.G. Lafley, founding CEO of the Conservancy, is third from left on that row. News Leader image

The final change was recommended by Sarasota attorney Dan Lobeck. Citing a section of the document that the city released in advance of the Oct. 19 commission meeting, Lobeck pointed to a sentence that said the TIF revenue “may be used for the design and construction of capital improvements within the Bay Park, including, but not necessarily limited to a new performing arts center.”

He asked that the board members strike the phrase, “including a new performing arts center.”

Otherwise, Lobeck said, the implication was that the TIF district proceeds would pay for the new venue planned to replace the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and then, if any funds were left over, they could be used for other park amenities.

During comments as part of the Oct. 19 public hearing, Lobeck also suggested that the commissioners hold a referendum on funding for the new performing arts center. Then, if the voters want to tax themselves for its construction, he added, they will be able to do so.

Lafley of the BPC has estimated that the other amenities for the Bay Park could cost about $150 million. A new performing arts facility could be a $270-million investment, Lobeck pointed out.

County Commission review of city changes

These are the latest estimated TIF payments for the city and county over the 30-year life of the proposed agreement. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During an Oct. 21 presentation to the County Commission, addressing the changes the city commissioners approved, Deputy County Administrator Steve Botelho noted revisions to Paragraph 7 of the agreement, which incorporated two of the city board’s changes. According to Botelho’s slide, Paragraph 7 would say, “Tax Increment Revenues from the City and the County, as they may become legally available from time to time under the terms of this Agreement, will be allocated to fund any or all of the following: i) capital improvements at the Bay Park; ii) a portion of a new performing arts center and iii) bicycle/pedestrian and multi-modal facilities within the District …”

The county commissioners approved those changes on a 4-1 vote, with Chair Michael Moran in the minority. Because of the anticipated diversion of about $92 million in county property tax revenue to the park over 30 years, Moran has voiced concerns that the county will not be able to provide sufficient services to its growing population during those decades.

Commissioner Nancy Detert said, “I’m glad that the City of Sarasota didn’t try to drag this out or make it complex.”

Botelho noted that the City Commission plans to conduct its second reading of the proposed ordinance during its first meeting in November.

Arguments against another revision

Mayor Ahearn-Koch also argued on Oct. 19 for a modification that would allow a certain percentage — without specificity about the amount — to be used for connecting The Bay Park to other parks and trails in the city, including the North Extension of The Legacy Trail, which will end at Payne Park.

She talked of the potential of an electric vehicle circulating among the city’s parking garages, neighborhoods and other city destinations, enabling people to catch rides from those areas to the Bay Park. “I don’t want to rule out that as an option,” she said.

When she brought up that proposal in a conversation with County Commissioner Charles Hines, Ahearn-Koch continued, she found that he had no problem with it. If she understood his response correctly, she said, he felt that was within the spirit of the agreement.

This graphic shows existing and planned bicycle and pedestrian connections overlaid on the TIF district. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

However, City Attorney Robert Fournier was the first to characterize that modification as a potential deal-breaker with the County Commission. “You seem to be taking this [type of connectivity] out of the district,” he told Ahearn-Koch, “and I have a lot of apprehension about that.”

Assistant City Manager John Lege, who has been part of the city team working with county staff on the agreement, concurred with Fournier. The County Commission has been adamant, Lege explained that “any money used outside the [TIF] district would be a show-stopper.”

Then City Manager Tom Barwin joined Fournier and Lege in describing Ahearn-Koch’s proposed change as a threat to County Commission adoption of the agreement.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Ahearn-Koch persisted. The park, she stressed, will be a destination “for the whole city,” so efforts should be made to enable residents who do not live close to the bayfront to reach the park.

When she asked whether Fournier felt the possibility exists for such language to be incorporated at a later time, Barwin was quick to respond that the TIF district agreement covers 30 years. Since both the city and the county staffs are working on master planning for transportation needs in the future, Barwin continued, opportunities will present themselves for collaboration on the type of initiative Ahearn-Koch had described.

Moreover, Barwin pointed out, the TIF district’s governing board will be meeting on a regular basis. With two city commissioners and two county commissioners serving on that body, he said, “This is really an unprecedented opportunity to communicate and collaborate.”

The more multi-modal connections to the park, the less land that will have to be used for parking spaces, Ahearn-Koch countered. “There is a rational nexus” to the proposal, she said.

Commissioner Willie Shaw makes a point during discussion on May 4 via videoconferencing software. File image

Commissioner Willie Shaw, who represents District 1 — including Newtown — also has argued for better connectivity to the park for his constituents. He voiced his concerns again on Oct. 19.

Commissioner Liz Alpert added that she did not disagree about the importance of extra connectivity options. Nonetheless, she said, “This particular agreement can’t be expected to solve every other issue that we would like to make happen.”

Alpert also cautioned her colleagues that, with the potential of new city and county commissioners being elected on Nov. 3, any City Commission action at this point that could delay a County Commission vote on the agreement and ordinance until after the General Election could jeopardize the TIF funding mechanism.

During the County Commission’s last discussion of the proposed agreement — on Sept. 22 — Commissioner Christian Ziegler said he still had reservations about diverting the estimated $92 million in county property tax revenue to the TIF trust fund for The Bay Park over 30 years, especially given individuals’ and businesses’ economic struggles during the novel coronavirus pandemic. He is not up for re-election this year.

Commissioner Hines, though, will have to step down from the county board in November, because of term limits, and Commissioner Nancy Detert is up for re-election — as is Chair Moran.

“I don’t want to take a vote based on fear of this election,” Ahearn-Koch told her colleagues during the Oct. 19 discussion. “I want to do what’s right for this community and what’s right for everybody in the city …”

Still, without full support of the other commissioners, she let the proposal die.

Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie did point to language in the proposed agreement that explains how the document could be amended.

In the beginning …

During the early part of the City Commission discussion, Assistant City Manager Lege reviewed the timeline regarding the proposal for the TIF district. He also presented the board members a slide explaining tax-increment financing: It “is a public financing method that is used for redevelopment, infrastructure, and other community-improvement projects.”

The slide also pointed out, “Fundamentally, a base year is determined at the creation of the TIF District which determines the total beginning taxable value of all properties in the TIF District. As development occurs and existing values increase, taxable values in the District increase, causing an increment in taxable values. The increase is multiplied by the adopted millage rate (Both City and County) to determine the incremental increase in tax revenues to be used exclusively within the District.”

This is one of the slides Assistant City Manager John Lege presented to the City Commission on Oct. 19. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

The base value of property in the TIF district for The Bay Park was $850 million, Lege noted. The base year would start on Jan. 1, 2019, city and county staff members have pointed out.

The original version of the district was expanded, Lege continued, to encompass areas to the east of the 53 city-owned acres. Thus, as Lege put it, the district “captures a fair amount” of the streets on which city staff has been focused for bicycle and pedestrian improvements, including 10th Street and Boulevard of the Arts.

Public and commission concerns

During the public hearing that night, a number of the 10 speakers offered remarks remotely, as the commissioners and staff still were using Zoom to conduct the meeting.

The very first person to address the board, Donna Moffitt, also was the first to suggest that a member of the public serve on the governing board of the TIF district. As proposed, she pointed out, “All the board members are either politicians or political insiders.”

Another resident, Paige Atkins, voiced her concerns that, with plans to divert the property tax revenue from the district to the TIF trust fund for 30 years, city services could be reduced if insufficient revenue were generated by the rest of the parcels in the municipality.

Atkins and Moffitt both expressed worries about the fact that estimated expenses for phases of the Bay Park continue to rise. Phase I started out in the $15-million to $20-million range, Moffitt said, but more recent projections put it at $25 million.

The Bay Park website has announced that the Western Mangrove Walkway is open at the park. Image from the website

On the other side of the issue, Michael Klauber, co-owner of the Michael’s on East restaurant and other hospitality industry businesses, pointed out that it was seven years ago last week, when he began discussions with former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, a senior vice president with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation in Venice, and Virginia Haley, president of the county’s tourism office, Visit Sarasota County, about the prospect of creating a public park and cultural and arts amenities on approximately 70 acres available at that time on and near the city’s bayfront. The area included the 53 acres that ultimately will make up the Bay Park.

During his remarks, Thaxton and Teri Hansen, president and CEO of the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, warned the city commissioners about the consequences of backing away from the TIF funding mechanism at this point. That would “send a chilling message for continued private sector support,” Thaxton said.

Hansen added that for every dollar of TIF money generated by the district, $3 or $4 will be generated through grants and other private funding. “Where else can you get that kind of leverage and benefits?”

Thaxton focused most of his remarks on the environmental features of The Bay Park, especially efforts to improve water quality in Sarasota Bay. He called the planned park amenities “an enduring legacy [for the commissioners’] grandchildren and [their] grandchildren’s grandchildren.”