A March 21 City Commission meeting could provide a definitive answer to a lingering question: Will Thunder by the Bay remain in its downtown home?
Following January’s 18th annual Thunder by the Bay, event organizers have been engaged in a dialogue with the city in attempt to secure a future for the motorcycle festival in downtown Sarasota.
So far, those efforts have produced no concrete results. That could change later this month, when the City Commission re-examines special events regulations that include a specific exemption allowing Thunder by the Bay to operate downtown.
As the city’s policymakers prepare to discuss downtown events, staff is working with Thunder by the Bay organizer Suncoast Charities for Children in search of an acceptable compromise.
This year’s Thunder by the Bay has drawn extra scrutiny, as merchants, residents and officials have registered complaints about the event. A survey of more than 100 downtown businesses suggested 62% of businesses were negatively impacted.
With 10 months until the 19th annual Thunder by the Bay, just one thing about the event is certain, according to Suncoast Charities Executive Director Lucy Nicandri.
“I’ve got vendors and sponsors asking me about it, and the only thing I can reassure them on is the festival’s going to continue,” she said.
Nicandri is holding out hope the event will be allowed to continue along lower Main Street, but she’s not counting on it. She’s already had preliminary discussions about different venues for the festival. The city has pitched the east end of Main Street and Payne Park as alternate sites, two locations Nicandri was hesitant to embrace.
Opponents of the event have suggested a venue outside of the city entirely, but those sites come with drawbacks, as well.
“Doing it at a fairgrounds or out east, it’s just another bike fest,” Nicandri said. “But when it’s downtown, you can shop, you can dine, you can walk around — you can enjoy the whole area.”
The future of Thunder by the Bay should become clearer March 21, when the city discusses special events regulations that have been revised and revisited since 2014.
That year, the city agreed to place a moratorium on downtown special events that close Main Street between Orange and Gulfstream avenues. At the time, the moratorium was approved to address concerns about construction projects disrupting business downtown. The new regulations included an exemption for several events with a history in the community, including Thunder by the Bay.
The moratorium was originally a temporary measure, set to expire in September 2015. The commission revisited the policy in July 2015, prolonging the blackout period as-is for another year even as Thunder by the Bay’s exemption garnered growing criticism.
“We want to get a temperature regarding the tolerance level for these events back to back to back.” — Marlon Brown
Following this year’s Thunder by the Bay, city administration directed staff not to issue any permits for downtown events until the commission revisited its policy. Although Thunder by the Bay’s exemption remains in tact, the organizers are restricted from gathering signatures from business owners that approve of the festival’s street closures.
The conversation about special events isn’t just restricted to Thunder by the Bay. Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said businesses and residents have expressed a concern about the number of events in the downtown area: Just a week before Thunder by the Bay, the New Year’s Eve pineapple drop is another special event exempted from the moratorium.
“We had the New Year’s Eve event one weekend, followed by Thunder by the Bay, followed by the seafood festival the next weekend and a bridge run the next weekend,” Brown said. “We want to get a temperature from the commission and the public regarding the tolerance level for these events back to back to back.”
Although the commission will take a broad look at special events rules, Nicandri said she needs a specific answer regarding Thunder by the Bay before the end of the month. Even if Thunder by the Bay gets permission to pursue its Main Street site, Nicandri is concerned the regulations may be subject to change in the coming months.
At Daytona Bike Week, currently underway in Daytona Beach, Nicandri said she fielded questions from people curious about the future of Thunder by the Bay. She couldn’t answer most of them — reinforcing the need for a definitive decision on whether the festival survives downtown.
“We need to know for the sake of our sponsors, for people booking hotel rooms,” Nicandri said. “We’re not talking about a one-day event. We’re talking about a festival that’s been here for 18 years.”
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