City commissioners offered a sign of support for maintaining downtown as a venue for special events — but also expressed an interest in revamping event regulations.
During January’s Sarasota Seafood and Music Festival at Five Points Park, Ron Soto expressed skepticism that the event would continue for a second year.
Soto is chairman of the Sarasota Downtown Merchants Association, the host of the event. He shared his doubts with City Manager Tom Barwin, who was surprised by Soto’s reaction — the festival seemed to be going well, and it aligned with the city’s objective of making Five Points Park a more active environment.
Still, questions surrounding the future of all downtown special events planted doubt in Soto’s mind.
“I said, ‘I think this will probably be our first and last, due to all the controversy from events,’” Soto said.
On Monday, the City Commission assuaged Soto’s concerns. Not only did the board decline to restrict the number of events in the downtown area, commissioners showed an interest in making sure the heart of the city remained a viable venue in the future.
Still, Monday’s meeting showed how concerns largely associated with Thunder by the Bay have impacted all downtown event organizers. Representatives for a variety of events — including races, art shows and Friday’s Stations of the Cross walk down Main Street — appeared before the commission to plead for their continued survival.
“We don’t have a policy that dictates that we don’t treat all special events the same.” — Shelli Freeland Eddie
The commission showed signs of division regarding the best way to manage special events going forward. City Commissioner Susan Chapman, a vocal critic of Thunder by the Bay, has expressed an interest in being more restrictive as the downtown core continues to grow. Commissioner Shelli Freeland Eddie suggested a committee should be formed to judge events on a case-by-case basis.
“We don’t have a special events policy that dictates that we don’t treat all special events the same,” Eddie said.
The rest of the commission, less concerned about the current system, indicated any necessary changes could be explored over the next several months. In the meantime, the city will end its temporary freeze on issuing permits to all downtown events other than Thunder by the Bay. City staff is continuing to negotiate with Thunder by the Bay organizers through April 18.
Despite the outstanding questions, Soto came out of Monday’s meeting optimistic that downtown events will remain alive and well. In addition to the seafood festival, the downtown merchants also organize the New Year’s Eve pineapple drop — another event that has drawn scrutiny from city officials.
The 2016 pineapple drop also faces a logistical challenge, because the Sarasota Farmers Market falls on the same day and uses some of the same space. Soto believes he’s worked out a solution with staff, centering this year’s iteration of the event around Five Points Park, instead.
Soto says there’s a value in keeping these events alive beyond offering visitors something to do. The merchant group raises money to put lights on trees downtown and pays for Christmas decorations in the winter, among other public displays.
“When you add it up, that’s a chunk of money,” Soto said. “All that money comes from special events.”
That sentiment isn’t limited to the merchants association. Howard Allen, organizer of the Downtown Sarasota Art & Craft Festival, said the Downtown Sarasota Alliance is dependent on revenue from his event. Paul Thorpe, the founder of the Downtown Sarasota Holiday Parade, said many event organizers are altruistically motivated.
“People raise money to do things the city doesn’t want to do,” Thorpe said. “We’re trying to promote our city and make it the best city in the world.”
Dubbed “the elephant in the room” by multiple commissioners, it’s still unclear what the future holds for Thunder by the Bay in downtown Sarasota.
Criticism regarding the event from merchants and residents inspired staff to reassess procedures surrounding downtown special events, but there’s been no decision on whether it will continue in its traditional location.
On Monday, the commission directed staff to continue negotiating with Thunder by the Bay organizers on a potential venue within the city limits. Festival organizer Lucy Nicandri has been reluctant to accept alternate sites suggested by the city, including the east end of Main Street and Payne Park.
“We want to see what’s going to happen where — and if we can make it work or not.” — Lucy Nicandri
Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown said Nicandri needs to show more flexibility regarding the event site, particularly given the amount of construction ongoing in the downtown area. With discussions set to continue through April 18, Nicandri expressed a desire to get more concrete information from the city on any logistical challenges surrounding the previous site.
“What I haven’t seen yet is details of all of the construction,” Nicandri said. “We want to see what’s going to happen where — and if we can make it work or not.”
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