The city of Sarasota could reap much needed cash by selling Payne Park and Bobby Jones Golf Course, but should it? How do parks and other public amenities fit into our definition of “essential government services?”
Conservatives make a strong case that government should only provide those essential services that the private sector cannot economically provide. One can argue that developing a little-used park, such as downtown’s Payne Park, is not an essential government service, and we all know that the private sector routinely provides golf courses. Accordingly, some argue that spending taxpayer dollars on Payne Park and Bobby Jones Golf Course is a misuse of taxpayers’ money.
But that reasoning is based on an interpretation of government’s purpose that is too narrow. While parks and public golf courses may not be essential in the sense that life could not continue without them, they are the type of amenities that are essential for the creation of a community with a high quality of life.
More than 100 years ago, F. Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham helped tame America’s teaming cities through their leadership in the creation of public parks. Residents of Boston, New York and Chicago can still appreciate their landscape excellence in Boston Common, Central Park and Grant Park. Few residents in these cities would agree that the provision of parks falls outside of the category of essential government services.
For those who are unfamiliar with the history of New York’s Central Park, it was a ragged, sparsely settled piece of land on the edge of town when it was purchased in the 1850s. But look at it now. Some of the most expensive real estate in the world borders the park.
It’s true that Sarasota’s Payne Park is underutilized today, but give it time. Development opportunities surround the park, and they will create the demand for the park during the next economic cycle. Just before the beginning of this recession, the city had approved a major residential development across the street from Payne Park, and when the economy rebounds, Payne Park will again become a magnet for redevelopment on the east side of downtown.
That’s not to say that Payne Park will have the same impact as Central Park. The scale is different. But Sarasota has effectively used parks to add life to the downtown over the last couple decades. In addition to returning Payne Park to public use, the city has added Five Points Park, Whittaker-Gateway Park, Links Avenue Park and the fountain at Pineapple and Lemon. Each of the parks has revitalized the area around it and added to the character of downtown Sarasota.
Perhaps the operation of Bobby Jones Golf Course should be privatized, but selling the land would be irresponsible if the city wants to keep golf convenient for its residents and tourists. In recent years we’ve witnessed developers close Sunrise, Fox Fire and Forest Lakes golf courses in attempts to develop housing. While the private sector can provide golf courses, golf courses themselves often provide a form of land banking for their owners, and the courses are subject to being closed and developed when land prices get high enough. Therefore, the only way to ensure that golf will remain convenient for city residents is for the public to own the golf course land.
Sarasota is blessed to have a large body of citizens that demands that our local governments be efficiently run and another large group that demands that Sarasota’s high quality of life be preserved and enhanced. Let’s hope our government leaders continue to meet in the middle by efficiently providing a high quality of life.
David Merrill is the former mayor of Sarasota, on the Better Government Association Board of Directors and is president of Arox Underground Utilities.