As groups begin work on creating a grand vision for the bayfront area surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, involved parties are loathe to discuss the specifics of what would go where at this point. There is at least one exception: those looking to secure a space for lawn bowling.
The Sarasota City Commission began reexamining its 2007 Cultural Park Concept Plan, a guideline for the future of the city-owned bayfront land, March 3. The plan, yet to be acted upon, originally called for the relocation of the lawn bowling greens along U.S. 41 to Payne Park.
Enter the bowlers. Although the city was in preliminary stages of revisiting the cultural park plan, several members of the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club appeared before the commission to speak to the importance of preserving the current facilities.
Lawn bowling may be a niche sport, but it’s attracted a dedicated following in Sarasota. The group has about 80 full-time members, 42% of whom reside within the city of Sarasota. The facility on U.S. 41 is a draw both regionally and internationally, club treasurer Iorrie Pickford said, which he believes is something the city should appreciate.
“Sarasota has many diverse activities, which really is one of the things that makes it culturally a very stimulating place to be,” Pickford said. “Lawn bowls is something that attracts a lot of visitors into the town during the season.”
The city never proposed the elimination of the lawn bowling greens — instead, the Cultural Park Concept Plan would have created a new facility in Payne Park. Daniel Jittu, a member of the lawn bowling club, understands how people might view that as a reasonable compromise, but if that plan were acted on, he does not believe it would work out.
“In reality, you’ve just killed the sport in Sarasota,” Jittu said.
Jittu, who put together a slideshow for the commission meeting, is aware of the sport’s level of popularity. Lawn bowlers fear that, if the city were to embark upon a multimillion-dollar bayfront park project in addition to its current financial obligations, it would be easy for a replacement lawn-bowling facility to get placed on the backburner.
Even if the new facility were constructed, Jittu said, it’s unlikely that it would meet the standards of the current greens. The group has worked closely with the city and county to maintain the turf in a certain manner, and an outside landscaper assists with the upkeep. A new facility would mean starting over from scratch — which would likely turn many people off, Jittu said.
“The greens are hard to maintain,” Jittu said. “It’s a fine balance.”
The current facilities met the standards of the Canadian and Scottish national bowling teams, who came to Sarasota last month to train and pick their team members for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Members of the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club said this international recognition was indicative of the caliber of the city’s greens.
“I’d say this is probably the best in the region in the moment,” Pickford said. “The fact that you’ve got these top national teams coming in really gives you an idea of how good these greens are.”
The Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club is preparing to submit a bid to host the 2016 Lawn Bowling U.S. Open, an event that members say would bolster the sport’s economic impact on the area. Even if the group doesn’t secure the event, Jittu said the facilities benefit the city’s bottom line.
“People come and buy our gas and buy our food,” Jittu said. “They wouldn’t if we weren’t here.”
Jittu said the group did not want to slow the progress of developing the bayfront land in question. Central Park in New York and Laguna Beach in southern California both have lawn bowling facilities on valuable public property. Jittu pointed to this as evidence that an ambitious project along the bayfront can coexist with the current lawn bowling greens.
“We don’t mind it going forward,” Jittu said of the bayfront project. “Nobody came to the lawn bowling people and said, ‘How can we get this done?’”
City Manager Tom Barwin said he was impressed by the history the group outlined in its presentation March 3. He said the City Commission voted to step back from the Cultural Park Concept Plan for the next 120 days, leaving a collection of nonprofit organizations to lead the conversation regarding the bayfront land. Barwin said he hoped any connected stakeholders would reach out to those groups, led by Visit Sarasota County.
“Hopefully this initial 120-day period will allow those interested to get involved,” Barwin said.
Pickford, too, bristled at the lack of communication from other parties thus far. He believes that, as the city more earnestly delves into how to develop the area surrounding the Van Wezel, the lawn bowlers will be allowed to participate in the conversation.
“Otherwise, it becomes a one-way train,” Pickford said. “I don’t think that’s typically the way they would want to operate.”
The largest demographic of the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club is Canadian, with Americans as one of the smallest.
Gerry Smith started lawn bowling after driving by the club one day in 1981.
“My husband, Harry, and I passed by and saw these people in white,” she says. Since then, Smith has competed in 12 tournaments, including three national championships. Smith plays six to seven games a week and helps teach newcomers. Smith, who is from Michigan and is turning 92 in June, says coming across the club was one of the best accidents.
“I love these people; they are my second family,” she says.
When Clem Reiss and his family were trying to decide where to move in 2007, they chose Sarasota partly for the beauty and partly for the lawn bowling. Reiss has been lawn bowling for 20 years and says his favorite part about the sport is the people. “Everyone is friendly,” he says. Reiss was president of the club for one term in 2011/2012. Reiss says the club is one of his favorites because of the atmosphere.
“It’s wonderful to be outside, especially in Sarasota,” he says.
Welsh native Iorrie Pickford has played lawn bowling around the world. While living in Sao Paolo, he played at the athletic club there. While based in New York as director of finance at Pfizer, Reiss played in Greenwich, Conn. Today, Pickford is retired and serves as treasurer of the Sarasota Lawn Bowling Club. He says playing three times a week keeps him happy.
“It’s addicting,” he says.
— Harriet Sokmensuer
Contact David Conway at [email protected].