With opening of North Port Connector, County Commission marks formal completion of Legacy Trail projects paid for by 2018 referendum

Route extends for 30 miles to downtown Sarasota

A Sept. 9 banner in North Port proclaimed, “Finish,” marking the completion of The Legacy Trail’s formal connector from that city to Venice.

However, as Sarasota County Commissioner Ron Cutsinger faced the crowd gathered in front of him that morning, including those spilling well beyond the shade of a tent, he pointed out, “I think I see this more as a starting line than a finish line.”

That day’s celebration, he said, is “the beginning of even more exciting opportunities and possibilities.” Cutsinger cited anticipated links from The Legacy Trail to other trails, resulting in a regional network for bicyclists and pedestrians. He also noted the potential for major sporting events, such as an Ironman triathlon, and the coming sidewalk connections to schools.

Moreover, Cutsinger pointed out, the 30-mile Trail from North Port to downtown Sarasota’s Payne Park was finished “851 days” — two years and four months — “ahead of schedule.”

During her remarks to the crowd, Nicole Rissler, director of Sarasota County’s Parks Recreation and Natural Resources Department (PRNR), explained that the paved Legacy Trail North Port Connector is just one of three routes linking the city to the Trail in Venice and parts north.

A second route is the South Powerline Trail, she noted, which is hard-packed. It travels alongside the T. Mabry Carlton Jr. Memorial Reserve and connects to the Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park in North Port, which is located at 6968 Reisterstown Road.

The third route — known as the Alphabet Trail — has a natural surface, Rissler said. It goes through the county’s Deer Prairie Creek Preserve and connects to the south entrance of that natural area.

During his turn at the podium, former County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, senior vice president of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, pointed out that he was part of a political action committee (PAC) organized in 1999 to push for passage of a referendum calling for a 0.25-mill property tax to generate revenue for the county’s Environmentally Sensitive Lands Acquisition Program (ESLPP). The goal of that program is to purchase property countywide that will be preserved forever from development.

The members of the PAC had learned, Thaxton said, that if they explained clearly how the tax would benefit the public, the voters would support it — and voters did support the ESLPP referendum.

One commitment accompanying the launch of that program, he continued, was that the property that the county bought would be accessible to the people. Stretching out his arm, he pointed as he said, “This land that you see right here to the west represents part of that commitment. … This Trail represents the formalization of that commitment.”

Thanks to the ESLPP tax revenue, Thaxton added, more than 125,000 acres of contiguous, natural areas have been preserved. They look just as they did when the first European settlers arrived in Southwest Florida, he noted.

“It’s so huge,” he said of the acreage, that it is visible as green space to astronauts on the International Space Station.

“For that reason,” Thaxton added, “today’s very special.” The North Port celebration showed that government could be trusted to do what it says it will do, he pointed out.

County Commission Chair Alan Maio and Cutsinger both talked about a second referendum — one that the commissioners put on the 2018 General Election ballot. It sought voter support for the county to issue $65 million in bonds to pay for The Legacy Trail’s North Extension from Culverhouse Nature Park on Palmer Ranch to downtown Sarasota, as well as the North Port Connector. More than 70% of voters approved that referendum, Maio added.

In the planning stages, however, Maio explained, North Port elected leaders became concerned that the ballot question as written did not convey adequately the county commissioners’ promise that part of the funding would go toward the North Port Connector. During a conference call, he said, then-Mayor Vanessa Carusone used “emphatic, aggressive, very illustrative words to say I had let her down.”

After she described how she would like to see the ballot question worded, Maio added, the County Commission changed it.

Cutsinger stressed how supportive the North Port commissioners became of the referendum.

Giving credit due to a number of supporters

The nonprofit Friends of the Legacy Trail received loud applause for its efforts, as well, to achieve the goal marked by the Sept. 9 event.

“We can’t ever forget the effort that the Friends of the Legacy Trail put in,” Maio said. As he has during past ribbon-cutting ceremonies for segments of the Trail extensions, Maio also talked of the leadership of the late Bruce Dillon of Nokomis in advocating for the route throughout the county.

Dillon took him to meetings of the Friends organization and to meetings of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, the latter of which facilitated the county’s purchase of the former railroad right of way to connect the Trail from Venice to the City of Sarasota and to North Port, Maio added.

The Friends organization, Cutsinger said, has “set the bar for what a Friends group looks like — the passion, the vision, the generosity, the tireless efforts they put forth to make this dream a reality.”

He also lauded the Trust, noting, “What an exceptional job [its leaders] did, bringing this all together.”

Rissler of PRNR took the opportunity to emphasize the support, as well, of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, including the $50,000 donation it gave the county for a stop station for the North Port Connector.

The final Trail sections envisioned by the referendum will be the overpasses of Clark and Bee Ridge roads, Rissler pointed out to the audience. The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) has committed to completing those by the end of 2024, she noted.

“Every time someone gets on the Trail,” Cutsinger told the audience, “it’s a value to our county,” whether it is a matter of reducing stress, boosting health or allowing a disabled veteran to enjoy a place in the sun. “Every one of us benefits.”

In wrapping up the remarks at the event, Rissler talked of the fact that she became director of Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources just weeks after the 2018 referendum for the Trail won voter approval. Her voice breaking, she noted the County Commission’s direction to get the flat connections completed as quickly as possible.

Rissler added that she believed just about every county department was involved in the project at some time.

Her voice breaking, Rissler continued, “The team that was part of this and worked every single day for the last four years to get us here is the most amazing team I’ve ever worked with in my life.”
When she asked for applause for those county staff members, a round of clapping commenced.

Rissler’s last “shout-out” went to the Capital Projects Department, whose director is Carolyn Eastwood. “You guys are the ones that really made this happen,” Rissler said.

Finally, as Rissler was ending her comments, Thaxton jumped to his feet and turned to face the audience. “There’s one person that we forgot to thank,” he announced: “Nicole Rissler.”

More applause and cheers rang out.

Then Rissler said, “Let’s cross the finish line.”

Commissioner Michael Moran joined his colleagues Maio and Cutsinger, along with leaders of the City of North Port, as Maio used the traditional, oversize scissors to cut the ribbon. A number of bicyclists watched, just waiting to christen the connector.

As the Friends of the Legacy Trail explains on its website, the entrance to the North Port Connector is located at 1045 Calera St., at the end of West Price Boulevard. Trail users “will find a new bridge that leads into Deer Prairie Creek Preserve,” the nonprofit adds.

“From there,” it continues, “the tree-lined paved trail meanders to the north, toward Interstate 75, where it then heads west to Forbes Trail and the north entrance of Deer Prairie Creek Preserve (approximately 5.5 miles).”

Noting that The Legacy Trail formally ends at Payne Park in Sarasota, the Friends’ information adds, “One can now ride from North Port all the way to downtown Sarasota, making this lengthy route a dynamic contribution to the region’s overall trail system.”