Sarasota stalls Bayfront plan to define cost to taxpayers

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No issue facing the City of Sarasota is of greater import than the redevelopment of its 53 acres that surround the Van Wezel and sprawl along the Bayfront. And the urgency to approve a master plan was slowed down last week when the City Commission resisted pressure by the Bay Park Conservancy to approve a public-private partnership that defines both the future of the parcel as well as the financial obligation by the City and its taxpayers.

The Commission agreed with Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier that he needs to have appropriate time to vet the final version of the agreement that will be voted on by the City Commission.

The Conservancy is the non-profit organization that seeks to manage the future 53-acre city park that will also locate a new performing arts center for the Van Wezel. At the workshop in March, Fournier made clear he had not been privy nor involved in the agreement and he said that the process had not gone as he anticipated.

In February of this year, a term sheet that spelled out the City’s responsibilities in the redevelopment endeavor brought both surprise and criticism from numerous residents.

Many residents said that the City’s cost and obligations far exceeded what was told to the community in previous discussions about the project. The project evolved out of efforts by the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization that raised $2.1 million from philanthropists and community organizations to create the master plan.

The master plan was shepherded by design firm Sasaki, which engaged the community over the past 18 months to develop the final master plan under consideration.

It is the terms that the City is obligated that are in question, including funding for construction and maintenance of all of the basic infrastructure in the future development including streets, paths, sidewalks, utilities, stormwater treatment systems, roundabouts, overpasses, boat ramp as well as parking and parking garages. The draft also calls for the City to assume responsibility for trash collection, maintenance, security, cleaning and utilities.

The total cost of the project could rise to over $400 million including the cost of the new arts venue. The conservancy is hoping much of the money will come from a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) agreement. Such an agreement is not a sure thing and depends on both the City and County cooperating.

The first portion of the multi-phase master plan is expected to cost about $15 million and includes a recreational pier, pedestrian crossover of U.S. 41 and pathways and park on about 10 acres of the 53-acre total.

Although on Sept. 6, 2018 the City Commission voted in approval of the overall concept and design of The Bay Plan, nothing can move forward until the term sheet is agreed upon by the commission.

As it stands, the City Commission will consider what the Bay Park Conservancy hopes will be a final version of the document at its April 15 meeting.

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