On a recent trip to New York City, former Vice Mayor Ken Shelin made a chance stop at Bryant Park, located in midtown Manhattan.
He recalled seeing a photo of the nine-acre park on the cover of a book titled, “Creating a Vibrant City Center,” and thought the Bryant Park model might also serve Selby Five Points Park, which is about a quarter of an acre in size.
“Every successful city has a civic space,” said Shelin. “Sarasota does not have one.”
In the early 1970s, Bryant Park was known as Needle Park and was overrun with drug dealers, prostitutes and homeless people.
In 1980, a group of prominent New Yorkers founded a private corporation to take control of the park. The city still owned it, but the nonprofit group paid for its operation and maintenance.
Bryant Park has since been transformed. What was once a drug haven is now filled with families and attractions such as a carousel, food vendors, theater, Broadway performances and fitness classes.
Shelin envisions a private takeover of Selby Five Points Park having the same effect. He said it could be a subsidiary of one of the downtown civic groups, a collaborative effort between the Downtown Improvement District, Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Sarasota Alliance, part of the Sarasota City Parks Foundation or an independent nonprofit.
The idea is that the park’s private operator could raise more money to maintain the park than the city is able to designate.
“The problem has always been that the city has an easy time convincing people to make capital improvements, but it has trouble continuing the maintenance,” Shelin said.
The former vice mayor has made two initial presentations of his idea — one to the DSA and the other to the DID. He’s received praise and pledges of support from both organizations.
In fact, a roomful of downtown residents at the Aug. 10 DID meeting applauded him after his presentation.
“I was startled,” Shelin said. “I’m delighted with the response.”
A couple of downtown residents who attended the DID meeting described the park as being just for the homeless and said they are sometimes are afraid to walk there at night.
Police have long said the more activity in the park, the fewer criminal transients there will be.
Shelin insists, though, that he’s not trying taking aim at the homeless.
“This is not an effort to kick anyone out of the park,” he said. “It’s really an economic-development issue. If we create activities that would draw more people to the park, businesses will benefit.”
The DID is funding a redesign of Selby Five Points Park, which will begin this fall. The improvements are intended to revitalize the park, and DID board member Andrew Foley sees Shelin’s proposal as beneficial to the new park.
“I don’t see a bad thing coming out of this,” he said.
Shelin will appear before the City Commission next month to ask its permission to have the city attorney look into any legal ramifications of a group of private citizens taking over a city-owned park.