On the face of it, the two most visible groups working on influencing the future of public waterfront land near the Van Wezel seem to be at odds with one another, down to their names — Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 and Sarasota Bayfront Now.
The Sarasota Bayfront Now team has officially publicly unveiled its plans — which include an aquarium, hotel, conference center and public park with a price tag topping $200 million — but the people behind Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 say they aren’t feeling any heat.
Part of that has to do with the show of support Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 has received from the city. The group has been in contact with the City Commission since March and received approval last month for city staff to participate in the group’s visioning process.
The other reason Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 members don’t feel pressure to compete with Sarasota Bayfront Now is because they believe they’re focusing on something entirely different.
“They don’t compete,” said Jon Thaxton, director of community investment with the Gulf Coast Community Foundation and a participant in the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 group. “One is a process — Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 is putting together a process that could provide guidance on the public land bayfront development. Sarasota Bayfront Now is a plan for the public bayfront development.”
This distinction allows Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 to stand apart from the ready-to-go development plan that Sarasota Bayfront Now has presented — to the displeasure of some city commissioners.
Rather than concentrate on what goes where, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 has focused its efforts on bringing a broad group of community representatives to the table. The effort, which began with Visit Sarasota County Board of Directors Chairman Michael Klauber, has expanded to include neighborhood groups such as the Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations, arts organizations such as the Sarasota Orchestra and economic associations such as the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce.
After assurance from the City Commission the group was on the right track last month, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 has continued to focus on broadening its base. When it’s satisfied all of the interested parties are involved, then it will work on developing a series of community priorities to use as a point of reference when evaluating potential bayfront developments. The group is considering hiring an outside consultant to help lead the conversation about community priorities.
“I think that the community has a track record for reacting negatively when pushed into a corner on things like this,” Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley said. “Hopefully, by having this broader, more visionary conversation in a positive way, (it) can make good things happen.”
The emergence of a new plan — whose developers are advocating quick action — isn’t going to deter the work of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20. Drayton Saunders, president of Michael Saunders & Co., said that although the group is taking a more deliberate approach, it is just as intent on making sure a project is ultimately completed.
“Each one of those people who attends those meetings — from CCNA to Visit Sarasota County to the orchestra — has the same intent, to make sure we really engage and conduct a community-led process to develop a best-of-class bayfront,” Saunders said. “That’s what we’re focused on, that’s what we have been focused on, and that’s what we will focus on.”
Members of Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 view the Sarasota Bayfront Now team as a potential collaborator, not as competition. Haley said that she was aware of other plans for the bayfront that are also in development. She’s hopeful all parties interested in that land would be willing to be a part of the community visioning process.
Thaxton said that, although the focuses of the two groups may have made them seem adversarial, the natural course of things is to have both parties work together.
“I think collaboration is the logical outcome of the unfortunate timing,” Thaxton said. “You had two groups working without one really knowing what the other one was doing. I think it just kind of rose to the surface in somewhat of an unfortunate way that created a stumbling block to a collaborative effort.”
For any project to be completed in a satisfactory way — for the city, for other interested stakeholders and for the community as a whole — Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 believes developers need to be willing to go through its chosen procedure, so that those parties can rest assured the proper support exists to move forward.
Although the Sarasota Bayfront Now group might want to move more quickly, Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 thinks its process will be worth the wait.
“Frankly, if I were a developer and I wanted a public-private partnership to gain access to public real estate, I would be thrilled to have a preexisting group to go to and consolidate that effort,” Thaxton said. “It can be formidable. It makes herding cats look like herding lemmings.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]