Saturday, March 16, 2019

Antunes: Bayfront Park -- Another Big Promise?

Cathy Antunes's blog,, is the intelligent reader's guide to Sarasota politics.

This column, entitled Bayfront 20Money, appeared in The Detail 3.13.19:

When it comes to achieving a big goal, good intentions are not enough. Commitment is essential. Commitment is what separates doers from dreamers. Planning for the City of Sarasota’s future Bayfront Park—the public’s 53 waterfront acres including the greening of the Van Wezel parking lot—has now moved beyond the “vision” stage into the “make it happen” stage.

Historically, this is where big plans in Sarasota can go very wrong.

We’ve seen big promises when it comes to public-private partnerships before.

The Benderson Rowing Park nonprofit, SANCA (Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates), said they would raise $22 million to construct a boathouse, grandstand and finish tower in time for the 2017 World Rowing Championships at the rowing park. Instead of SANCA raising that $22 million, a second nonprofit, the Benderson Foundation, funded the $5 million finish tower just in time for the event. The rowing p ark still lacks a boathouse and grandstand.

Public money—over $50 million—has been the main source for the rowing park’s construction. Sarasota County is the ongoing source of funds for park maintenance. SANCA has not brought the funding it promised.

In 2009, as part of their stadium deal, the Orioles promised to raise $10 million to construct a Cal Ripken Youth Academy out at Twin Lakes Park. This was the sweetener, the game-changing project that was going to “re-invent spring training.” Kids playing with the pros, a great economic engine that would fuel our local economy! Today there is no Cal Ripken Youth Academy. Taxpayers funded the stadium but didn’t get the baseball academy they were promised in return.

Tangible commitments are SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound. Both the rowing park and Cal Ripken Youth Academy were promises, not commitments. The associated contracts between the County a nd SANCA, and between the County and the Orioles were effective at compelling the County to spend public money, but worthless regarding ensuring the promised private sector financial support.

Enter the Bayfront Park Conservancy agreement.

Everyone agrees a 53-acre bayfront park is a great idea. The park vision includes a softened shoreline, transformation of the Van Wezel parking lot into green space and a new performing arts hall. Estimates for the cost of the envisioned Bayfront Park are up to $500 million.  The contract currently being hammered out between the BPC and the City of Sarasota should answer a fundamental question: Why does the City need the BPC? What tangible value does the conservancy bring to the table? Among other problems, there is no dollar amount specified that the BPC will raise and no associated deadline.

Funding the ongoing costs of operation and maintenance of this new park will be critical to its financial sustainability and the financial health of the City of Sarasota. The annual operations and maintenance costs for the proposed park has been estimated at $5 million to $6 million. The draft agreement says the BPC will develop an operating and maintenance plan for each phase of the park, but there is no requirement that the BPC plan actually be successful.

This park plan began with an emphasis on private money. However, it has become clear that the lion’s share of the project financing will come from public coffers. The current contract obligates the City financially, but fails to spell out the financial commitment of the private sector. Come on people. We’ve been down this road before. Show us the money

The more specific the contract is about the City’s obligations, and the more vague the contract is about the conservancy’s obligations, the more reason there is to for City residents to be concerned.  The City Commission must get this right.

Cathy Antunes is host of The Detail on WSLR. 

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