A lot of news happened over the summer. Not all of it smelled bad.
Red tide killed fish and a piece of the summer
No tropical storms or hurricanes came calling directly, which normally would be a central component of a happy summer, but something nearly as annoying and disruptive washed ashore in late July.
The toxic plume of microorganisms drifted well off the Florida coast for most of 2018 and began killing sea life in the Fort Myers area just about the time you snowbirds headed out.
Ultimately, it found its way north, leading to fish kills, horrible odors that persisted deep inland and ruined cash register receipts for businesses up and down our coast.
In explaining red tide’s impact, merchants, particularly those on Siesta Key, acknowledged late summer was a typically slower time of year anyway, so the economic damage could have been worse. Still, many of them reported business falling off by double-digit percentages year over year.
And while the waters nearby have periodically tested positive for the red tide algae this fall, and beaches have been closed because of bacterial levels found in the water, fish kills haven’t been a problem for weeks.
Bayfront plans move into the future
You’ve seen the colorful artists’ renditions by now: A bayfront with parkland, entertainment venues, places to grab a drink and a bite – largely driven by what you told planners you wanted to see there.
Now, after the City Commission approved the whole thing Sept. 6, you might actually, someday, park your hydrogen-electric car in an underground garage, grab a taco (or whatever space food people eat in 2030) and listen to a live concert of the Beach Boys at the venue. What? Mike Love will only be 89 by then (and still singing “California Girls” in a Hawaiian shirt).
Sooner than that, though, the first phase — a recreational pier on the south end of the property — could be built with $15 million to $25 million by 2020.
Before any dirt gets pushed around or buildings toppled, governance of the new bayfront district must be worked out. And financing. If all goes according to plan, that will be forged by early 2019. Representatives for The Bay Sarasota, the group that produced the master plan, will coordinate with city staff on the creation of that new organization to build and manage the sprawling public park.
The overall timeline is 10-20 years at a cost of $340 million to $470 million.
School district launches police force
Police officers began working at elementary schools in August. It’s not their presence that is a big change, it’s the uniforms their wearing.
They’re not sheriff’s deputies or city police. They are school district police, employed for the first time by Sarasota Couonty Public Schools.
The move was made largely because of a state law requiring upgraded security at public schools following the Parkland school shooting in February. But implementation could have taken several forms: more school resource officers, armed security guards and other options.
Sarasota County’s solution was partially borne of a dispute between Sheriff Tom Knight and Superintendent Todd Bowden and how security was to be funded.
District police are staffing 21 schools in the county. City police staff schools in Venice and Emma Booker Elementary. Middle and high schools are staffed by uniformed officers or deputies based on the location of the schools.
By the 2019-2020 school year, district police are expected to serve in all of the district schools except for two in Venice.
More places to fly from home
Suddenly, SRQ became a bigger destination in the eyes of airlines.
American Airlines, Allegiant and Frontier all announced new direct flights from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. And just this week, Allegiant announced even more.
Flights to and from Dallas-Worth, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Asheville, N.C., Baltimore, Columbus, Ohio, Grand Rapids, Mich., Harrisburg, Pa., Nashville, Richmond and Syracuse joined Atlanta, Chicago and Charlotte.
Some of those flights won’t start until 2019, and they’re not all daily.
SRQ President and CEO Rick Piccolo couldn’t single out just one thing. Sarasota is going through a period of growth, including in the hotel industry. The airport is in a good place financially, which makes airlines more comfortable moving in. SRQ has an aggressive incentive program for carriers launching new routes. Sarasota and Manatee county tourism bureaus are effectively working as partners on marketing efforts.
“You combine all those factors, and it finally starts to pay off,” Piccolo said.
Mote goes fishing for dollars
Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium's plan for an aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park took several big-fish tail swooshes closer to reality over the summer, the biggest of which was probably an agreement in principal with the county on a land deal.
Under the terms outlined in the nonbinding document, Mote would eventually secure a two-year lease of a 15-acre county-owned parcel near University Parkway and Interstate 75. Mote would ultimately either assume ownership of the property or enter a long-term lease with the county to operate a new four-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium on the site.
Mote is also seeking $20 million in county funding for the project, a request the commission has yet to thoroughly discuss.
After adopting the term sheet, county staff will continue negotiations with Mote officials on a more formalized agreement. Staff intends to complete those negotiations before Jan. 31.
We also learned a few weeks ago that donors thus far have committed $28 million of the $130 million total needed.
Lido pavilion dispute
For a while, it seemed like a renovation of the pavilion at Lido Beach was a done deal. A lease was agreed to, concepts were firmed up and Sarasota city staff recommended approving the site plan and major conditional use application.
But after months of protest — and a marathon public meeting — opponents of plans to redevelop the Lido Beach pool and pavilion under a private operator scored a victory. That’s when the city’s Planning Board, after five-and-a-half hours of discussion, voted 4-1 Sept. 12 to recommend denial of the site plan for proposed pavilion project.
Representatives for Lido Beach Redevelopment Partners LLC submitted plans to the city earlier this year to modify the operations at the city-owned beachfront property. The plans include a 200-seat restaurant, a 33-seat Tiki bar, a splash pad, playgrounds, a new shade structure above the pavilion seating area and rental cabanas by the pool. The changes would not modify the footprint of the existing pavilion building.
But the plans have been a source of controversy among residents, particularly those living on Lido Key. An online petition has gathered more than 3,300 signatures opposing the planned redevelopment.
Sarasota's City Commission will vote soon on the project.
Siesta Key and Lido Key still at it
Legal ups and downs (depending on your point of view) were frequently in the news over the summer in the saga of the city’s plan to dredge Big Pass to nourish Lido Key beaches.
In June, the secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued a final order to permit the work to proceed, generally adopting recommendations made by an administrative law judge a month earlier. The Army Corps of Engineers also announced it had allocated $13.5 million of the $22 million needed to do the job.
The Siesta Key Association’s lawsuit to block the dredging was dismissed on procedural claims in October, but the group refiled an amended complaint based on its contention the city failed to comply with necessary regulatory steps.
City Manager Tom Barwin saw the judge’s ruling as a vindication of the city’s right to proceed with the project. The city is working with the Army Corps of on an effort to take 1.3 million cubic yards of sand from Big Pass, which has never been dredged.
Questions arise over email use
City Manager Tom Barwin came under scrutiny after a resident’s public records request revealed Barwin had received and sent messages regarding city issues from a personal Gmail address from 2015 to 2017. Barwin said he has forwarded most messages from that account to the city’s email servers, ensuring they were accessible in records searches, though not all emails provided were previously available.
He said the messages were largely innocuous and suggested any emails that hadn’t been turned over were an oversight.
In September, the city said Barwin has turned over his personal devices as part of an ongoing, independent and comprehensive search for messages that qualify as public records. Afterward, the investigation will check to see which of those messages had not previously been forwarded to the city’s public server.
Martin Hyde, a frequent critic of Barwin, made the June records request that sparked the conversation about the city manager’s email use.
Paid parking makes a return
The garage on St. Armands Circle is soon to be completed, but that’s only part of the paid-parking story in these parts.
Merchants and stakeholders spent a good bit of the summer trying to hold Sarasota leaders’ feet to the fire on a deal to establish paid parking downtown along with the paid garage and street parking in their shopping and dining district.
The fear was visitors would turn up their noses at Circle paid parking and head downtown, where they could leave their cars curbside for free – if they could find a spot.
In the past few weeks, though, the Sarasota City Commission has reversed itself and voted to move ahead with parking meters along Main Street and Palm Avenue.
Meet the new traffic, same as the old traffic
Traffic. (Heavy sigh)
Yeah, we know. It doesn't look like much has changed, right?
Look closer, though. At the eastern end of the Ringling Causeway, there's an extra lane to turn left to U.S. 41. Everyone loves it and hopes it's one of the answers to keep cars and trucks moving over the bridge and into town.
There are a lot more ideas kicking around, too. More traffic circles are either planned or under construction. St. Armands Circle might experiment with speed tables to calm traffic and the notion of crossing guards keeps coming up.