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Sarasota Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2018 3 years ago

Commission eager to find profitable use for Celery Fields properties

Fresh Start brought them the ideas. Now the commission asked the group to work with county staff to revise them, and bring back final suggestions this summer.
by: Cassidy Alexander Staff Writer

The County Commission on Wednesday agreed to extend a deadline and provide more direction for a resident group’s endeavor to propose uses for two parcels of land outside the Celery Fields.

The group presented two proposals each for the two properties at the corner of Apex Road and Palmer Boulevard, after five months of organizing and reviewing proposals. 

They narrowed down 31 options to four general ideas with plans to further refine them.

The parcels came into the public consciousness when a developer sought to establish a building-materials recycling facility on the land, which borders the Celery Fields east of Interstate 75. The commission denied that proposal.

Fresh Start is looking to redevelop the southwest and southeast parcels, outlined in red.

Then, in an effort to replenish its financial reserves, the commission considered selling the land as surplus. Instead, residents organized into Fresh Start and asked the commission to hold off and give them time to recommend other compatible uses.

More than 50 homeowners associations supported the initiative. Commissioners gave Fresh Start until May 28 to bring back its plans. 

At an April 25 meeting, Fresh Start executive committee members Marguerite Malone and Tom Matrullo presented the group’s methodology and findings.

“Fresh Start is a community story,” Malone said. “It’s a happy community story, it’s an involved community story, it’s a passionate community story.”

For the 12.7-acre southeast quadrant, the most popular idea was a multiuse community pavilion and a visitor center. The other option is an eco-tourist nature lodge, resting area and optional restaurant.

For the 10.7-acre southwest quadrant, an outdoor sports complex proposed by the YMCA was the most popular proposal. The second-best option, they said, was a group of Old Florida style shops, restaurants and second floor apartments.

Further, Matrullo presented the idea that improving the parcels could be a way to tie together the entire area — things like a bus loop at the Celery Fields Welcome Center, a roundabout at Apex and Palmer or a bird watching tower could go a long way, he said.

“Widespread interest exists in a unifying vision for the entire Celery Fields area,” he said.

“That’s not real money until that property is sold, and if we miss the market again then we’re going to have another problem.

But commissioners stressed the importance of finding a use for the land that will bring money back to the county, not cost the county additional money.

“What I really would like to see … if we sell these properties, we do it with some parameters on it, but bring in private dollars that do it,” Commissioner Charles Hines said. “The eco-hotel, that’s kind of where my vision is going instead of just creating a park that we have to maintain and spend money on.”

Commissioners were fans of the lodge idea, and the sports complex, but emphasized they wanted to get the land into the private sector as a way to make money. 

If both parcels were sold at their highest possible use, they could bring in about $3 million for the county, according to estimates from last year.

“You have done a yeoman’s job,” Commission Chair Nancy Detert said. “You shouldn’t have to do this on your own.”

The group and the commission agreed to extend the deadline for proposals from May 28 to mid-August so Fresh Start can work with staff to further explore the viability of the ideas.

Ideally, commissioners hope to see possible provisions to put on the land for what a private buyer could use it for, and requests for proposals ready to go by August.

“There is some urgency here,” Hines said. “That’s not real money until that property is sold, and if we miss the market again then we’re going to have another problem.”

I’m Cassidy. I cover news in Sarasota County, Siesta Key and the schools, plus community events if they involve dogs. I’m a Florida native, and University of North Florida graduate with degrees in journalism and graphic design. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 304.

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