When the Sarasota County Commission moved toward upgrading the BMX facility located on 17th Street, commissioners believed the track could be the only one of its caliber on the East Coast.
Since then, other communities — including one just more than an hour away — have made moves toward constructing their own state-of-the-art BMX tracks, an attempt to cash in on the sport’s burgeoning popularity and recent status as an Olympic sport. Commissioners have indicated a commitment to the track upgrades, but with other areas have the same idea as Sarasota County, some have wondered the effect competition might have on the plans for new facilities.
Plans to improve the BMX track have been under consideration since 2011, but became a more imminent possibility last summer. BMX became an Olympic sport in 2008, and Sarasota County leaders have indicated they believe the Sarasota track could become a sought-after training facility in the lead up to the 2016 games.
Planned upgrades include new lighting, electronic starting gates, a redesigned track and two new ramps — including an Olympic-caliber 8-meter supercross ramp, only one of which is currently available in the U.S. The project is at least $1 million shy of being funded at a budget of $1.7 million, though the most recent estimates place the cost at $2.1 million.
At a May 7 County Commission meeting, the board considered a business plan from Sarasota BMX, the group that operates the track. Some of the goals in the plan include hosting three major events and overseeing a 25% growth in local membership in the first year of operation after upgrades.
Commissioner Christine Robinson expressed some skepticism about the numbers, which included a roughly $60,000 operating surplus in the first year of operation. Despite the fact that the facility was taking on nearly $90,000 in payroll expenses by fiscal year 2016, the business plan had the track comfortably turning a profit. Robinson asked if that was realistic.
“I want to make sure that what they’re putting in this plan is achievable,” Robinson said. “If you need to adjust these numbers to make them achievable, do it now.”
Commissioner Nora Patterson questioned what impact other planned Olympic-caliber BMX facilities in Oldsmar — less than 60 miles north of Sarasota — and Rock Hill, S.C., would have on the Sarasota track.
“You could have a whole circuit, like you do for spring training,” Patterson said. “Or it could be competition that would allow us not to have world-class events here.”
Carolyn Brown, the county’s director of Parks and Recreation, said Sarasota BMX was well connected to BMX governing bodies. She believes the track would still be an attractive option for riders. Still, she acknowledged that the other tracks complicate the issue.
“It’s hard to know exactly what the impact will be of these additional tracks coming on,” Brown said.
Nicole Rissler, director of sports with Visit Sarasota County, has been in close contact with Sarasota BMX and USA BMX as the planned upgrades have moved forward. She thinks the South Carolina track probably won’t impact Sarasota BMX, but that the Oldsmar track will have a more significant effect.
That wouldn’t necessarily be negative, Rissler said. She’s had conversations with USA BMX about hosting back-to-back events at the neighboring tracks, and believes they can complement one another when elite athletes are looking for a place to train.
“We’ve always planned and hoped that people would want to train here,” Rissler said. “I think that message would only get stronger — you can come to Florida, and you can train on two different supercross tracks.”
Visit Sarasota County is working with county staff and Sarasota BMX to address some potential issues with the business model before the County Commission considers a revised version. Still, Rissler said, she believed the group’s forecast wasn’t too far off. The commission is expected to vote on funding the construction in the fall, with completion slated for July 2015 if commissioners grant approval.
Commissioner Joe Barbetta, a leading advocate for the upgrades, said he trusted Sarasota BMX to handle running the updated track.
“I think the people who have run this operation to date have been great stewards of this sport,” Barbetta said. “It’s amazing what they’ve been able to do.”
Contact David Conway at [email protected]