With 3-2 vote, County Commission approves plans and expense for Phase 2 of The Bay Park in downtown Sarasota

Moran and Ziegler continue to oppose years-long county funding commitment

Although the Sarasota city commissioners recently voted unanimously to approve the Phase 2 plans for The Bay Park on the city’s 53 waterfront acres, both Sarasota County Commissioners Michael Moran and Christian Ziegler voted “No” after seeing the same presentation that was shown to the city board.

During the County Commission’s Oct. 11 meeting, Moran and Ziegler pointed to their consistent opposition to the use of tax-increment financing (TIF) to pay for the projects proposed for the park.

Moran has stressed his concern that no one can predict economic trends 30 years out; therefore, at some point in the future, the members of the County Commission could be contending with another recession without the opportunity to use the property tax revenue that has been dedicated to The Bay Park.

On Oct. 11, Ziegler expressed worries that the Bay Park Conservancy (BPC), the nonprofit organization in charge of the planning for and management of the downtown Sarasota facilities, could end up proposing even more initiatives because the TIF District for the park already is generating more money than anticipated.

In November 2020, before the county commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the TIF mechanism for the park, county financial management staff estimated that, at the end of 30 years, the county would have contributed a total of $92,130,317 to the trust fund holding the revenue. The city’s funding was projected to add up to $97,288,084.

In July, the county’s Office of Financial Management revised the estimates to reflect a total of $308,033,001 from both local governments by the 2049 fiscal year. The payments this year were made on the basis of the city’s 2023 fiscal year millage rate, which is 3 mills. One mill represents $1,000 of property value.

Kelly Strickland, the city’s finance director, explained to the City Commission that the interlocal agreement for the park calls for the lower of the two board’s annual millage rates to be used for the TIF District.

Both AG Lafley, the Bay Park Conservancy’s founding CEO, and Bill Waddill, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer, stressed to the county commissioners on Oct. 11 that they and the Conservancy’s board members have no intention of coming up with more ways to use the money, if the more recent financial projections prove to be on target.

“We’re not going to raise our estimate … just because there’s more money on the table,” Lafley pointed out. “That’s not the way we operate.” The goal of the Conservancy, he added, is to deliver the best possible park “for the most efficient cost.”

Waddill emphasized the fact that the interlocal agreement that the City and County commissions approved for the TIF District and use of its revenue calls for a 15-year review of the status of the funding, with the potential that the district could be dissolved at that time, instead of continuing for 30 years, as initially projected.

“We come before you a minimum, annually,” Waddill added, “so there’s lots of opportunities to evaluate the planned improvements …”

County Commission Chair Alan Maio reminded his colleagues that he was the one who had proposed that 15-year review, which “is probably 11 years away.” Maio added, “I would strongly suggest that the county start looking at that [TIF District revenue] in 10 years and drill down on it.”

If it continues to exceed projections, Maio said, the county commissioners at that 15-year mark could act on the clause in the agreement.

Section 4 of that interlocal agreement reads as follows: “Beginning in the fifteenth year of this Agreement and every five years thereafter, the City and the County agree to work in good faith to jointly evaluate the performance of this Agreement. Factors that may be considered during such an evaluation include, but are not limited to, the types and numbers of completed capital improvements in The Bay Park, the amount of Tax Increment Revenue being produced each year, the total amount of Tax Increment Revenue contributed to the Trust Fund under the Agreement, the amount of outstanding debt used to redevelop The Bay Park, the amount of private investment in The Bay Park, and the operation of The Bay Park. While the results of the evaluation will not mandate any particular result or any change in this Agreement, the intent of this requirement is to provide an opportunity for a collective review and discussion about the Agreement.”

Maio further noted that he was the board member who worked to ensure that the TIF District include more than just the 53 acres set aside for The Bay Park. The TIF District formally was established as of Jan. 1, 2019 to capture the property tax revenue from new developments on that additional property, including the Quay Sarasota, which is just south of the park.

For every year that the value of property in the district grows, city and county financial staff members calculate how much property tax revenue each local government will collect from the owners of the land in the district. They apply their millage rates to that new value and then set aside the corresponding money in the trust fund for The Bay Park.

“You’re benefiting from the fantastic rise in real estate values,” Maio told Lafley and Waddill on Oct. 11 It is possible those values will continue to rise, Maio added.

Moreover, Commissioner Moran noted that the terms of the interlocal agreement call for the City of Sarasota to issue any bonds that will be repaid with the TIF District revenue.

Part of the discussion that day was the Conservancy’s request for County Commission approval for the use of $48.8 million from the TIF mechanism to pay for Phase 2 of the park. The total estimate for that next section of facilities is $65 million, Waddill said.

The City Commission also approved the bond request as part of its Oct. 3 vote.

Additionally, Moran pointed out, “The city is going to be dealing with [the maintenance expense],” not the county.

The Conservancy has based its estimates for the maintenance costs on what on what “other great parks around the country” are paying for that each year, Waddill said. For the 14 acres of Phase 1 of The Bay Park, he continued, the Conservancy figures the maintenance expense will be $1 million to $2 million per year. However, he pointed out, the figure will be refined “down the road,” when the nonprofit has tallied its actual expenses.

“This year,” Lafley noted, “we’ll finish at about a million [dollars],” with the majority of that amount allocated to the expenses for staff — six people plus Waddill. Programming costs for activities at Phase 1 have been put at $250,000 to $300,000 a year, Lafley said.

Moreover, Waddill noted, the city is responsible “for all basic maintenance” for The Bay Park, just as it is for all of its other parks. The TIF money, he stressed, can be used only for capital expenses.

Nonetheless, Waddill did take the opportunity during the discussion to note that surveys the Conservancy has undertaken have shown that “about two-thirds of users [of The Bay Park] are from outside the city. … We’re already a county draw. … This is a really important regional facility.”

Commissioners Nancy Detert and Ziegler are the two county commissioners on the Bay Park Improvement Board, which must give formal approval to any proposals for the park before those go before the full City and County commissions for final votes.

The two city commissioners on that board are Liz Alpert and Hagen Brody.

The fifth member of the Improvement Board is former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, a senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

The restaurant issue

As he made his comments on Oct. 11, Ziegler stressed his desire to see the park include at least one restaurant that will face Sarasota Bay, instead of boats at the City of Sarasota’s 10th Street Boat Ramp, which is just north of the park’s proposed Canal District.

He has made that point in past discussions with Waddill, Ziegler noted.

When he ran for County Commission in 2018, Ziegler explained, he heard many comments from residents about the lack of waterfront dining options in the county. A couple of waterfront restaurants are located in the Nokomis/Osprey area, Ziegler said on Oct. 11, while Marina Jack and the Jack Dusty restaurant inside the Ritz-Carlton are the primary choices in Sarasota.

Yet, at Marina Jack, Ziegler pointed out, “You’re looking at boats …”

He added later, “I’m talking about [a restaurant] directly on the bay,” with “unobstructed views [of the sunsets].”

The Bay Park, he emphasized, “is prime real estate [for waterfront dining facing Sarasota Bay].” Ziegler told Waddill that he finds the lack of such plans in the conceptual design “a huge opportunity that’s missed …”

“We couldn’t agree more” about the importance of restaurants in the plans for The Bay Park, Waddill replied. However, Waddill continued, “We believe that this needs to be deployed in a phased manner.”

The Conservancy has a food and beverage working group, Waddill said; among its members are restaurateurs, including Ed Chiles, who has been known for years for his beachfront dining establishments in Manatee County. “They’ve been advising us,” Waddill added of those individuals.

Further, he pointed out, “This is a critical part of our financial plan.”

As he has explained in past discussions with the County Commission, Waddill reiterated the fact that the Conservancy is planning to take a portion of restaurant revenue to combine with interest from the nonprofit’s endowment fund to cover its operating expenses.

“It’s loud and clear,” Lafley added, referring to Ziegler’s position. “It’s just not in this phase,” he said of the plans before the County Commission that day.

“We’ll look at all options,” Lafley continued. However, he told Ziegler, “A very real challenge” with creating such dining options is the issue of environmental resiliency. The design of Phase 2 had to contend with the fact that the property would have to be resistant to flooding because of its proximity to the bay, Lafley explained.