Pickleball fans join Legacy Trail supporters in celebrating completion of Pompano Trailhead in Sarasota

Opening of North Port Connector still planned for August

(From left) Former Commissioner Jon Thaxton, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, Commissioners Nancy Detert, Alan Maio, Michael Moran and Ron Cutsinger, and Nicole Rissler, director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources, gather for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 8. Image from a Facebook Live video courtesy of Sarasota County Government

Not only was Sarasota County’s new Pompano Trailhead for The Legacy Trail in the proverbial spotlight during a July 8 ribbon-cutting event, but the ceremony also put the focus on the growth of interest in pickleball countywide.

In fact, Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), took the opportunity early on during her remarks to point out, “I think, for the first time ever … there’s a group that’s larger and louder than the Friends of the Legacy Trail [at a Legacy Trail Extension celebration].”

Image from the club website

That group, she noted, comprised members of the Sarasota Pickleball Club. The attendees representing the club responded with cheers.

Along with connections to the county’s Babe Ruth Park, to the north, and the Sarasota County Fairgrounds, the Pompano Trailhead — located at 601 S. Pompano Ave. in Sarasota — features a playground, a rest stop for cyclists using The Legacy Trail, space for mobile vendors and food trucks, and 12 lighted pickleball courts.

Rissler emphasized the courts. In fact, she noted, those new facilities bring the county’s total number of public pickleball courts to 40, with another 20 planned.

The Pompano Trailhead, Rissler pointed out, “is a regional destination that brings together so many people with different interests in recreational opportunities.”

An aerial map shows the location of the trailhead site at 601 Pompano Ave. in Sarasota. Image from Google Maps

She called the formal opening of the facilities “an incredible milestone,” marking the completion of the final new trailhead constructed to serve the Legacy Trail North Extension from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to downtown Sarasota’s Payne Park. “I can’t wait to see the different ways that this trailhead and park will be used.”

(The other new trailheads/parks are the Sarasota Springs facility, standing at 4012 Webber St. in Sarasota, and the Ashton Trailhead, located at 4301 Ashton Road in Sarasota.)

“These trailheads are awesome!” County Commission Vice Chair Ron Cutsinger told the audience, which Chair Alan Maio had described as “quite a crowd.”

When the formal North Port Connector from Venice to the City of North Port opens next month, Cutsinger added, “You’ll be able to take the Trail all the way from North Port” to Payne Park, and probably farther. “What a wonderful way it is to experience beautiful Sarasota County.”
The distance, commissioners and staff have noted, will be about 30 miles.

A May 2019 graphic shows the proposed layout for the Pompano Trailhead as of that time, with pickleball courts and parking spaces, as well as the former state driver’s license facility. Standing at the podium during the July 8 event, Nicole Rissler of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources joked that she was standing on almost the exact same spot 30 years earlier, when she received her first driver’s license. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, offered another perspective on The Legacy Trail, which, he noted, the Foundation has supported.

“I had a very unique privilege of growing up in Palmer Ranch,” he explained, stressing that he was talking not of the property today, which has an abundance of residents and shopping centers, but the former ranch itself. That land, Thaxton said, “was occupied by rattlesnakes and cattle and dove and quail and turkey.”

Being a child who enjoyed fishing and hunting, he continued, he could have found “no better playground than to have Palmer Ranch as a backyard.”

One of his fondest memories, Thaxton noted, was when he was about 14, around 1970 or 1972: “I finally put together the jeep trails that led me to the Seminole Gulf Railway. This, to me, was a portal to adventure. I had this sense of excitement the first day I crossed over to [what would become The Legacy Trail].”

This graphic from the county’s Water Atlas shows North Creek. Image courtesy Sarasota County

He also talked of how he and his friends “used to jump trains,” when the locomotives had to slow down for the trestles crossing water bodies, including South Creek and North Creek.

One of those friends, Thaxton pointed out, was the late Bruce Dillon of Nokomis. Dillon was among those who “had this idea of converting this derelict, son-to-be-abandoned railway into a trail [for bicyclists and pedestrians].”

Then Thaxton explained that he was on the County Commission when the board members named the Trail. The commissioners “were very uncertain” about what name to use, he added. “At the last minute,” Thaxton said, John McCarthy, then-director of the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, suggested, “Let’s call it The Legacy Trail.”

The Gulf Coast Community Foundation, Thaxton continued, “is proud to partner [with the county commissioners and county government] on this Pompano Trailhead facility.”

Rissler noted in her comments that the Foundation had provided $80,000 to help with the construction of the various amenities.

The idea behind The Legacy Trail, Thaxton told the audience, was to create a “spine trail that would connect all of the communities in Sarasota County. We’ve got a great start.”

“We’ve still got to get to North Port” and to the North County line, he said, including a connection to the traditionally African American community of Newtown. “Now we have to go to Lakewood Ranch, as well,” given the thousands of people who live there, Thaxton continued.

“And we’ve got to get to Englewood,” he added. “This spine trail would then create the opportunity to have these ‘finger trails,’” Thaxton pointed out, providing even more connections throughout the county.

“The wild lands and agriculture lands [in the county] are disappearing,” he said, with fewer left each year. His hope, he told the audience, is that, through continuing county purchases of environmentally sensitive lands and parkland, plus The Legacy Trail, Sarasota County “will continue to provide a sense of adventure for the youth of our community,” along with what he called a “sense of place.”

Earlier, during his remarks, Commission Chair Maio pointed out that 34% of the county has been preserved from development, and the county has 155 parks and recreation facilities on 55,000 acres.

When Commissioner Cutsinger was at the podium, he joked about his hesitation to correct Maio, but the number of county parks is 165, Cutsinger said.

Ahead of schedule and below budget

Back at the podium, Rissler reminded the audience members, “We are so close to the finish line in our ‘Race to Completion’ [of the Trail extensions] and still over two years ahead of schedule.”

She added that the projects are under budget, as well.

In November 2018, during the General Election, close to 72% of county voters approved a referendum to allow the county to issue up to $65 million in bonds to finance the North Extension and North Port Connector of The Legacy Trail. Afterward, the county commissioners urged

Rissler and her staff to put extra effort into completing all of the flat sections of the North Extension. Rissler has referred to the result of that direction as the “Race to Completion.”

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will construct The Legacy Trail overpasses of Bee Ridge and Clark roads. Those projects, as listed on the District 1 schedule in the department’s latest Five Year Work Program, are to be wrapped up by 2024.

This is the July 10 update on the FDOT schedule for the two overpasses for The Legacy Trail North Extension. Image courtesy FDOT

Finally, putting that proverbial spotlight once again on pickleball on July 8, Rissler announced that members of the Sarasota Pickleball Club were inviting people who do not know how to play “this crazy sport” to stay for a demonstration on six of the courts, following the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “And please use the brand new paddle holders appropriately,” she added with a laugh.

Nicole Rissler holds up one of the paddles she planned to give to a county commissioner. Image from a Facebook Live video courtesy of Sarasota County Government

Rissler also referenced earlier comments from Maio and Cutsinger regarding the fact that Commissioner Michael Moran was the force behind the board’s direction to staff to construct more pickleball facilities in the county.

In response to a question from Cutsinger, Moran admitted that he never had even held a paddle. Moran also laughingly noted that he did not know the rules of the game. After making that latter remark, Moran told the audience, “Nicole literally gasped” at that admission.

Just before stepping away from the podium, Rissler announced that she had presents for the commissioners — all of whom were present except Commissioner Christian Ziegler — and the county administrative staff: “They will all be receiving a paddle today, so they have no excuses not to come out and play.”

That statement prompted a round of applause.