The directors of the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce could not have dreamed of a better weekend. The weather hardly could have been any better for a January weekend.
And there was so much to do: “The Jewels on the Bay” Designer Showcase at the Crosley Carriage House; the Forks and Corks Food and Wine Festival throughout the city and at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art; the Sarasota Native American Indian Festival Sunday at the Fairgrounds; and the annual two-day St. Armands Winter Art Festival, not to mention all of the usual cultural shows throughout the region.
It was exactly the kind of weekend that compels and has compelled so many people to choose Sarasota as their permanent or winter home or the destination for their vacations and getaways.
You couldn’t help but notice one flaw, however.
With so many snowbirds and others itching to get out and enjoy the gorgeous weather, Sarasota’s main thoroughfares, predictably, teemed with vehicle traffic.
Early Saturday afternoon so many people decided to head to the St. Armands art festival that cars inched along bumper to bumper from Gulfstream Avenue and U.S. 41 across the Ringling Bridge and all the way into St. Armands Circle. By dusk, the traffic jam reversed to the mainland — cars lined up on the south side of the Ringling Causeway/State Road 789.
Saturday afternoon also brought cars to a standstill on U.S. 41 from Gulfstream stretching north to the Ringling College of Art and Design.
For the most part, motorists behaved. They maintained their patience, soaking in the dry, fresh air and the warmth of the sun.
Throughout all of this, though, there was a conspicuous absence: no sign or visible presence of the Sarasota Police Department helping to direct traffic and keep it moving smoothly.
Yes, there were a few officers helping direct pedestrian traffic in the middle of St. Armands Circle. But nowhere along the causeway or at the clogged intersections on U.S. 41 were there any uniformed officers working to ease the congestion, or at least attempting to make sure cars kept moving at an even pace.
This is the way it always is. No matter how badly traffic may back up at the height of season at Sarasota’s major traffic flash points — U.S. 41 and Gulfstream, U.S. 41 and Fruitville, Mound and U.S. 301, Bee Ridge and U.S. 41 — it’s as rare as a solar-lunar eclipse to see a Sarasota police officer or Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputy directing traffic.
These times are more crucial than any throughout the year for traffic to be moving smoothly. This is the time when everyone who lives here year-round should be doing his best to assure that our guests, visitors and tourists have the best experiences they possibly can. We want them to come back. They help keep our residents employed. They provide fuel to our fragile economy.
If it means adjusting traffic officers’ schedules and duties, then so be it. In the private sector, these adjustments would be made without a second thought. You boost your staff hours at the busiest times, cut back when it’s slow. At the height of season in most businesses in our area, almost no one works 9 to 5. You adjust to serve your customers.
Apparently, though, this doesn’t occur at Sarasota City Hall or the Sarasota Police Department. Indeed, mention this subject to St. Armands Circle business owners, and they roll their eyes. Many, worn down out of frustration, have given up trying to rouse city officials to respond.
And to make matters worse, the city administration, because of declining tax revenues, has adopted a new posture in recent years: For special situations, such as last weekend’s St. Armands Winter Art Festival, if the merchants would have requested additional traffic control, the city would have charged the merchants an extra fee. Apparently, the taxes the St. Armands business and property owners already pay won’t cover those few and rare occasions when traffic is at its seasonal peak.
We know that managing scarce resources is always a challenge. But when you see the traffic tie-ups like those of last weekend, you can’t help but wonder whether the leaders at City Hall and in the new police station give much thought to addressing the big weekends at the height of season. These aren’t new phenomena. They occur every year.
One of the objectives for the city’s traffic-control department is not to operate as Sarasota’s Sales Prevention Department; it’s to help sell Sarasota. Everyone’s job in Greater Sarasota — at every level of every organization, public and private sector alike — is to attract and retain customers.
MONUMENT TO THE AMERICAN WAY: SPEND OTHERS PEOPLES’ MONEY
Sarasota’s spring-training enthusiasts and Baltimore Orioles fans are looking forward to the newly renovated Ed Smith Stadium — all $31 million worth of renovations.
And what a stadium it will be:
• Increased seating capacity from 6,500 to 9,000;
• Triple the amount of concession and beer stands;
• 100 additional toilets and urinals;
• 35,000-square-foot clubhouse;
• Air-conditioned retail store and concessions;
• Refurbished dark-green seats from the Orioles’ Camden Yards in Baltimore;
• A new concourse at the second level with restrooms, concessions and wheelchair access — most of it shaded;
• A picnic area in left field, featuring Boog’s Barbecue, in honor of former Oriole slugger Boog Powell.
We heard one enthusiast say on Tuesday the “new” stadium looks fabulous.
Call us a cynical crank. But we still can’t get over the Sarasota County Commission borrowing $31 million — to be repaid through tourist bed-tax collections and sales-tax collections — to dress up a baseball stadium primarily for a business venture that deserves no help from taxpayers — even if those taxpayers paying the tab are primarily tourists.
The bottom line is: Anyone — resident and tourist alike — who purchases any sales-taxed item in Sarasota County or who stays in a hotel or rents a condo is helping pay off the debt on the stadium bonds. And it’s safe to say most of those people are not likely to step foot into Ed Smith Stadium to see the Orioles.
What makes this project even more difficult to accept is the accompanying table. Judging from the numbers, Sarasota’s visitors couldn’t give a hoot about spring-training baseball.
According to surveys of tourists last January through March, of all of the activities tourists enjoyed most last year, spring-training baseball ranked last. Not even 10% of the visitors surveyed ranked spring-training baseball as an activity they enjoyed most while here.
What do they like? Surprise! Dining, the beach and shopping.
And yet, Sarasota County’s elected officials opted to borrow $31 million, plus interest, to persuade the Baltimore Orioles to play in Sarasota.
This reminds us of the story of the board member of a national retail chain. He listened intently to the company’s CEO outline the CEO’s strategic plan for the new year. It included investing millions of dollars into the company’s poor-performing stores to try — try — to bring them up to the levels of the company’s high-performing stores.
After hearing all of this, the frustrated board member remarked: Why are we investing all of this money into stores that have always been low performers? Why not invest those millions of dollars into our high-performing stores to help them perform even better?
Here’s what the city of Sarasota and Sarasota County should do with Ed Smith Stadium: Sell it. Get out of the baseball-stadium business.
WHAT TOURISTS LIKE
Researchers for the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau surveyed Sarasota-area tourists last January through March on what they enjoyed most on their visit. To view the results, click here.