County officials are considering a plan to spur development of a county-owned acre of downtown land at the northeast corner of U.S. 301 and Main Street.
One proposal for the .95-acre property at 20 N. Washington Blvd. involves a land swap resulting in a hotel on the upper Main Street property. The land is currently being used as a courthouse parking lot.
Rod Connelly, president and founder of Civix Inc., a Sarasota-based real-estate-development company, wants to trade with the county so he can build a hotel on the U.S. 301 site.
The idea of developing the site first arose a year ago, when County Commissioner Joe Barbetta led a discussion about whether the county should sell three of its prime parcels of public land — including the acre on U.S. 301.
At the time, “We got a few phone calls about that Main and U.S. 301 property,” Barbetta said. In addition to the hotel proposal, another developer told county officials he wanted to build office space there, Barbetta said.
County Administrator Randall Reid wrote in a March 7 email to county commissioners that county officials would be meeting soon with Connelly to discuss the hotel proposal.
During an interview with the Sarasota Observer Monday, March 11, Connelly confirmed he was in talks with the county, but declined to discuss specifics of his proposal because of a confidentiality agreement with the other people involved in project.
“We have an interest in developing the property,” said Connelly.
As of March 11, Connelly had spoken with county officials, but had not met with them.
Civix, formed in 1983, has developed projects in Port Charlotte, including a Publix and SunTrust Bank. The development company drew attention in 2002 for its proposed office and mixed-use development at the corner of Morrill Street and Orange Avenue in downtown Sarasota. That project was never built.
In November 2003, Civix purchased the 113-acre bankrupt Sunrise Golf Club east of Honore Avenue in Sarasota for $3 million from Wells Fargo Bank Minnesota. But, in 2006, the project for 600 upscale condos was stopped ,when residents opposed to the project brought it to court. The development firm is currently under agreement to develop a brand of MedEplex Medical Office Buildings throughout Central Florida.
‘An interesting concept’
Barbetta said a private development — whether it be a hotel, office building or some other project — belongs on the county-owned parcel. Barbetta said it doesn’t make sense to put another county or city government building “on a prime corner at a major intersection.”
“Why should government sit on it?” he asked. “I hope something happens. The whole objective is to get some economic development and get that property back on the tax rolls.”
Barbetta wants to see any potential project include public parking-garage spaces to replace the spaces currently used while people are conducting county business. According to Barbetta, the county could work out a deal to sell the land, swap it or request developer proposals to build something on the property.
Sarasota city attorney Robert Fournier said there was a 2003 memorandum of understanding between the city and the county that would have given the city air rights to the property at 20 N. Washington Blvd. That agreement, however, was never finalized, Fournier said.
“The city doesn’t have any ownership interest in that property that I am aware of,” Fournier said.
Nonetheless, any project built on the property would require city approval, because it is in the city.
City Commissioner Paul Caragiulo said the prospect of a hotel at the visible downtown intersection intrigued him, but he did not know specifics of the proposal.
“If there is a viable proposal, absolutely we should work together,” Caragiulo said about working with county officials.
“It is an interesting concept,” said downtown advocate Paul Thorpe.
The hotel would be within walking distance to the restaurants and shops on Main Street.
Even though it would be close to the heart of downtown, Thorpe said one concern is the amount of traffic congestion at the intersections of U.S. 301 and Ringling, and U.S. 301 and Main Street, and the ability of hotel guests to safely cross the busy roadway, especially during peak tourism season.
“I would say that is probably one of the most (traffic) congested corners,” Thorpe said.
For that reason, Thorpe wonders if a mid-block location would be better for a downtown hotel — such as the previous proposal for a hotel at the site of the current Ellis Building at Main Street and Orange Avenue.
Thorpe did note, however, that one of Sarasota’s first and most visible hotels was not far from the proposed hotel. The Sarasota Terrace Hotel stood at the corner of U.S. 301 and Ringling Boulevard, until the hotel closed in 1972, eventually becoming the county’s Terrace Administration Building (see sidebar on Sarasota Terrace Hotel).
The last hotel in the east section of downtown was the Sarasota Terrace Hotel on the corner of Ringling Avenue and Washington Boulevard. The hotel, which Charles Ringling built in 1925, was originally known as the Ringling Terrace Hotel.
“Spring training started in 1924, and some of the New York Giants stayed in that hotel,” said Jeff LaHurd, historian at the Sarasota County History Center. The former baseball stadium stood where Payne Park is now.
The Sarasota Terrace Hotel had 125 rooms. Ringling died shortly after the construction of the hotel.
The hotel was considered a “middle class” hotel, when compared to more luxurious establishments such as Miramar and El Vernona Hotel, LaHurd said. At the Sarasota Terrace Hotel in the late 1920s, rooms rented for $3 to $5 for a single bed and $8 for a double bed. While guests dined, the Sarasota Terrace Orchestra played music.
Hotel guests had an easier time crossing Washington Boulevard before it became U.S. 301.
“It wasn’t like today’s traffic,” LaHurd said. “Washington was a two-lane road.”
In 1965, the Sarasota Terrace Hotel became the Sarasota Motor Hotel. It continued under that title until 1972, when the hotel closed its doors. However, instead of falling to the wrecking ball, Sarasota County purchased the building in 1972 and turned it into the county’s administration center. From 1972 to 1995, the building served the county’s needs. But, as Sarasota County administration continued to grow, it became apparent more space was needed. In 1994, Sarasota County purchased the vacated GTE building on Ringling Boulevard and began renovations.