County leaders point to fact that trailheads constructed over past couple of years have become community gathering places
Well before he was elected to the Sarasota County Commission in November 2020, Ron Cutsinger of Englewood has pointed out, he was a citizen advocate for the $65-million Legacy Trail bond referendum that county leaders placed on the November 2018 General Election ballot.
The commissioners needed voter approval to exceed the county’s bond cap, so the extension of The Legacy Trail from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to downtown Sarasota’s Payne Park, plus a connector from Venice to North Port, could be completed.
No one was thinking of trailheads in advance of that vote, Cutsinger told the audience gathered at the Osprey Junction Trailhead on Feb. 14.
Yet, as Cutsinger, Commissioner Joe Neunder of Nokomis and Nicole Rissler, director of the county’s Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNF), noted on Feb. 14, the new Legacy Trail trailheads constructed over the past couple of years have become much more than just places of respite for cyclists and walkers. They are community gathering spots.
People were gathered that day at the Osprey Junction Trailhead, which stands at 939 Bay St. in Osprey, to celebrate the completion of a number of improvements on that site — with more to come, as Rissler pointed out.
That trailhead, she said, “is a perfect place for neighbors, nature lovers and Legacy Trail users to take a break in the breeze and enjoy another wonderful park that Sarasota County has to offer.”
The trailhead has a new restroom, paved and unpaved parking spaces, several new picnic shelters and a concrete walking path throughout the area, Rissler added. Many of those improvements, she noted, were made possible by the Legacy Trail Capital Campaign.
Moreover, Rissler noted, in partnership with the nonprofit organizations Friends of Sarasota County Parks and Friends of the Osprey Junction Trailhead, “several new nature gardens,” interpretative signage and the opening of a trailhead visitors center would be coming later.
That comment prompted a “Yay!” from an audience member, with which Rissler concurred.
Rissler did acknowledge that, over the years, she and her PRNR colleagues had heard many public pleas for more restrooms along the Trail. “We have now opened five restrooms” over the past two years, she emphasized.
On Jan. 11, 2022, the County Commission voted unanimously to approve a $1,339,800 contract with the A2 Group of Port Charlotte to construct the improvements that members of the public had gathered to celebrate on Feb. 14.
Originally, staff expected the project to be completed in July 2022. However, staff had provided the caveat, “weather permitting,” in a memo that was part of the Jan. 11, 2022 County Commission meeting agenda packet.
The summer months did have their share of rain — to wit, the term “rainy season” for that part of the year; and then Hurricane Ian struck in late September 2022.
No one during the Feb. 14 event complained about the delay. In fact — as has been the case with previous celebrations of new Legacy Trail trailheads — the mood was festive. Laughter rang out at speakers’ remarks on a number of occasions.
At one point, commission Chair Cutsinger talked about his efforts to change the viewpoints of individuals and members of groups opposed to the extensions of The Legacy Trail because of the multi-million-dollar expense.
“They just didn’t have the vision for what [the Trail] could become,” Cutsinger said. “And to be honest with you, I could never have anticipated how incredibly amazing the Trail would be …”
“A few weeks ago,” he continued, “ a very outspoken member of [one group adamantly opposed to the extensions] came up to me and said, ‘I want to tell you I was wrong. You were absolutely right,’ ” the person told Cutsinger, referring to the value of the 30-mile-long amenity.
Cutsinger elicited laughter from the audience when he added, “I think I was happiest about the fact that my wife was with me when he came up to me and told me that.”
A second anecdote he offered the audience focused on his son’s efforts to convince him to join his son in trying to run a marathon.
Cutsinger said he told his son that he would not attempt that distance, but he would train for a half-marathon — and he did that on the Trail.
One morning, Cutsinger continued, he showed up at one of the Trail segments and encountered a woman who was training to run the same distance. He suggested, he said, that they run together; she agreed to do so.
“Got a couple of miles down the Trail,” Cutsinger added, “and then she kind of waved and she was off and gone. I never saw her again.”
Hundreds of thousands of Trail users documented
During his remarks, Commissioner Neunder noted that the Feb. 14 ribbon-cutting ceremony was his first since his election to the board in November 2022. Therefore, he said, the event would become a special memory.
Neunder, too, focused on the fact that all of the approximately 450,000 county residents can take advantage of the amenities that the Trail affords, including the 13 trailheads.
Further, he emphasized that the nonprofit Friends of the Legacy Trail had determined that, over the past 12 months, 600,000 people had used the Trail. (The organization’s website put the exact number at 666,020. The website explains how Steve Martin, a member of the nonprofit, calculates the statistics. A chart shows the number of users by month. In fact, the figure for January of this year cites the total as 80,965, about a quarter more than the 64,457 users in January 2022.)
Referring to the 12-month figure, Neunder told the Feb. 14 audience, “That’s just absolutely, simply amazing,” adding that he expects the number to grow.
Cutsinger had emphasized earlier, “The Trail offers something for everyone.”
Wrapping up the remarks, Rissler of PRNR reported that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) “is still working feverishly” on the Legacy Trail overpasses of Clark and Bee Ridge roads in Sarasota. The schedule calls for their completion by the end of 2024, she added.
Additionally, in late March, Rissler said, she and her staff are planning an event to mark the installation of a bridge and other improvements on the North Port connector through Deer Prairie Creek Preserve.
Finally, Commissioners Mike Moran and Mark Smith joined Cutsinger and Neunder — along with Rissler, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and Assistant County Administrator Brad Johnson — for the traditional photo op: Cutsinger wielded ceremonial, oversize scissors to cut the ribbon, officially marking the conclusion of the county’s Osprey Junction Trailhead Project.