Thunder By the Bay organizers hope to use city’s Payne Park in 2017

City staff is working on those details and a proposed ordinance for handling special events in downtown Sarasota in the future

Participants in Thunder By the Bay visit vendors' booths on Gulfstream Avenue in 2014. File photo
Participants in Thunder By the Bay visit vendors’ booths on Gulfstream Avenue in 2014. File photo

City of Sarasota staff is continuing to work with representatives of Suncoast Charities for Children in regard to its application to host Thunder By the Bay in Payne Park in January 2017, staff told the City Commission this week.

With the organization’s executive director, Lucy Nicandri, having encountered “some pushback” from First Baptist Church and businesses after she proposed holding Thunder By the Bay on Upper Main between Orange and Links avenues, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown explained, the nonprofit withdrew its application for use of that part of the city.

And while city staff will handle the proposal administratively regarding Payne Park, Brown pointed out, plans call for the motorcycles to stay on School Avenue, part of which will be closed, with vendors and musical acts in the park itself.

“That’s what we’ve been told so far,” Debbie Perez, the city staff member who manages the Municipal Auditorium and special events, added.

Jan Thornburg, senior communications manager for the city, told The Sarasota News Leader in a May 17 email that no timeline has been established for city staff to make its decision about allowing the event to go forward next year in Payne Park.

The discussion arose as the City Commission was debating whether to proceed with extending the moratorium for one more year on the closure of Main Street between Orange Avenue and Gulfstream Avenue for special events, with the exception of parades, the annual New Year’s Eve festivities and Thunder By the Bay. Ultimately, the extension to Sept. 30, 2017 passed unanimously, but Thunder By the Bay was the focus of several board questions and comments.

Robert Fournier. File photo
Robert Fournier. File photo

Commissioner Liz Alpert ultimately made the motion to extend the moratorium, with the three exceptions, until Sept. 30, 2017. Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell seconded it, and it passed unanimously.

City Attorney Robert Fournier explained the commission would have a detailed discussion — probably in June or July — before it was asked to decide how it wants to handle all street closures for special events in the future.

In the meantime, Fournier cautioned, “I think the city doesn’t have to allow the closure of any streets to conduct these special events, but if the city decides to do so, it’s important that everybody get treated the same way.”

Fournier referenced angry emails business owners and members of the public sent to commissioners after the latest Thunder By the Bay was held in January.

“If anything, I want this to be fair for them next year,” Atwell said of the three special exceptions the moratorium has included.

Brown explained that city staff is reviewing all special events, especially in terms of their footprints on city property and the city resources that have to be devoted to them.

Looking to the future

An aerial view shows Payne Park. Image from Google Maps
An aerial view shows Payne Park. Image from Google Maps

“The most objective thing that I heard,” Fournier told the board, “is that some events — maybe among them [the New Year’s Eve celebration and Thunder By the Bay] — … might just be getting too big for the city to accommodate.”

The street closure moratorium originally was put in place in June 2014 as a response to “[c]oncern over how to facilitate traffic circulation and parking downtown amid all of the construction” that was taking place at the time, he wrote in a memo provided to the board in advance of the May 16 regular meeting.

The exceptions for parades, the New Year’s Eve festivities and Thunder By the Bay were put into the original resolution, he reminded the commissioners, because “these events were unique and … they had a more beneficial impact than other events that required the closure of Main Street.”

By extending the moratorium, he pointed out, the City Commission makes it possible for them to continue in 2017, though the action does not ensure that.

Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie voiced worry prior to the vote that continuing to include Thunder By the Bay as an exception in the resolution might send a “mixed message,” given the public complaints that have been aired — including anger over noise created by the motorcycles.

“I don’t see that this forecloses your options at all,” Fournier told Freeland Eddie.

A graphic provided to the City Commission shows tentative plans for Thunder By the Bay in Payne Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota
A graphic provided to the City Commission shows tentative plans for Thunder By the Bay in Payne Park. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

“I want to make it clear that I have always spoken on the record about this,” Commissioner Susan Chapman began, referring to Thunder By the Bay: “It takes up several thousand square feet of downtown and it’s a very intensive taking of just space.”

“And I think that’s where your discussion should probably be more focused,” Fournier told her, referring to the ordinance being drafted in regard to special events, which the board will address this summer.

A note included in the agenda packet for the commissioners says that Thunder By the Bay this year used 298,850 square feet of space and raised $54,000 for Suncoast Charities. The Payne Park proposal encompasses 653,400 square feet, another agenda document says, and that does not include South School Avenue between Ringling Boulevard and Wood Street.

In a Jan. 26 email to the city commissioners, Nicandri reported that the event this year had an economic impact of $8,883,700, which was up 10 percent from 2015, according to a study Suncoast Charities provided.

Brown pointed out that if the city staff does allow Thunder By the Bay to be held in Payne Park in 2017, no businesses or residences will be affected by the closing of School Avenue adjacent to the park. The only outside entity involved essentially would be the Department of Health in Sarasota County, Brown noted. It is located at 2200 Ringling Blvd.

The VIP party Thunder By the Bay hosts would be in the Payne Park Auditorium, Perez told the commissioners.

When Chapman asked about the deposit the organization would be required to pay, Perez responded that staff was planning on the standard of 150 percent of the expenses the city’s Public Works Department would be expected to incur for the event. All the logistics have not been worked out yet, she continued, so no figure has been established.

City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group
City Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie. Image from Freeland Eddie Law Group

Freeland Eddie voiced concerns about whether the deposit would be sufficient to cover any necessary remediation of the grounds, as some events in the past have left considerable damage.

Perez said the organizers would provide staff a layout. “There won’t be a surprise.” She added, “In the past, the security deposits we have received for [events] have been adequate to cover what happened in the park.”

Nonetheless, Perez noted, if the commissioners felt a higher deposit was necessary, staff would require that for Thunder By the Bay.

In regard to another comment from Freeland Eddie— about alcoholic beverages in the park — Perez pointed out that numerous Payne Park events include such beverages. “[Organizers] always have to provide an alcohol management plan.” Furthermore, Perez said, the city does not allow people consuming alcoholic beverages at an event to wander freely with open containers.

Brown also pointed out that the Alta Vista Neighborhood Association has communicated to city staff its support of the event in Payne Park, but the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association opposes the plan.

Responding to questions from City Manager Tom Barwin, Perez said the skateboard part of the park, the café and the playground all would remain open during Thunder By the Bay.

One other concern

In the discussion of the moratorium extension, Chapman also raised a concern that New Year’s Eve will be on a Saturday this year, but the street closure for it includes space the Sarasota Farmers Market will need that day.

In his discussions with the organizers of the New Year’s Eve event, Brown replied, he has made it clear that Lemon Avenue cannot be utilized until after the market has closed and the vendors have cleared out, which would be after 2 p.m.