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Sarasota Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020 9 months ago

High-profile Sarasota projects hope to make major strides in 2020

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How do the groups overseeing these planning efforts intend to get it done?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Headed into 2020, leaders of several high-profile projects in Sarasota are working on moving out of the planning phase and into the process of making their vision a reality.

From The Bay Sarasota on the downtown waterfront to Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory’s land near Interstate 75, community organizations are determined to break ground and secure hundreds of millions of dollars to build regional attractions.

Here are three of those projects that hope to make major progress in the next year:

The Bay Sarasota

Project details: 53-acre public bayfront park with a 10-acre initial phase
Project cost: $100 million to $200 million overall; $25 million for Phase 1
Targeted project timeline: Phase 1 construction beginning summer 2020. Phase 1 open by the end of 2021.

After seven years of planning work, The Bay Sarasota hopes 2020 will be the year it can begin construction in earnest on the first phase of a park project encompassing more than 50 acres of city-owned waterfront land surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

The first phase of The Bay project, being developed in partnership with the city of Sarasota, will be a park on 10 acres of land located north of Boulevard of the Arts. Key elements include a spiral boardwalk above the water, an open-space events lawn, a food and beverage pavilion and a mangrove bayou.

The Bay, an independent planning organization tasked with overseeing the park project, hopes construction can begin this summer and the first phase can be built by the end of 2021. The group must gain a series of additional approvals from the city this year year before beginning construction.

To fund the $25 million first phase of the project — and more than $100 million to build out the park over the span of more than a decade — The Bay developed a multi-track financial strategy. The organization is focusing its initial efforts primarily on philanthropic contributions, hoping to raise $20 million in private donations toward Phase 1. Already, the group has secured $14 million in commitments from donors.

Veronica Brady, The Bay’s director of advancement, said those who have contributed toward the project have expressed excitement about helping build a public asset on land that is largely dedicated to surface parking today.

“The donors who have generously invested in us thus far are really thinking of it as a legacy gift to our community,” Brady said.

Despite the number of high-profile capital campaigns underway in Sarasota at the outset of 2020, Brady is confident The Bay and other organizations can achieve their fundraising targets.

“My personal opinion is we’ve created a community that is philanthropic, and that it isn’t an either/or,” Brady said.

Long term, The Bay is working with the city and county on creating a tax-increment financing district that would funnel property tax revenue from the area near the bayfront toward funding the project. According to city estimates, the terms under consideration could provide more than $200 million over a 30-year period. The Bay Chief Implementation Officer Bill Waddill hoped a deal authorizing the TIF could be in place by this summer.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is pushing the county to commit $20 million toward a new aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park, but some county leaders want to give the request some additional consideration. File rendering.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium

Project details: Five-story, 110,000-square-foot aquarium near University Parkway and Interstate 75
Project cost: $130 million
Targeted project timeline: Construction beginning in 2020. Aquarium open by 2023.

In 2018, when Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced plans to move its aquarium operation to a new facility at Nathan Benderson Park, Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said the organization hoped to break ground on the project in 2019.

As 2019 came to a close, Mote had successfully secured the right to use the county-owned parkland it coveted and began preliminary site work, but the organization still had some major work left to do. That’s why, on Dec. 10, Crosby found himself in front of the Sarasota County Commission, asking officials to make providing $20 million in funding toward the aquarium one of the county’s “highest priorities for fiscal year 2021”

At the County Commission’s strategic retreat three days later, Crosby didn’t quite get his wish. Although a majority of the board signaled a desire to find a way to accommodate Mote’s funding request, some commissioners were hesitant to make a financial commitment without considering the financial implications of the decision. As a result, the board directed staff to prioritize working with Mote on supporting the aquarium project but stopped short of endorsing the $20 million figure.

Instead, the county will examine its capacity to provide a financial contribution to Mote’s project this year.

Crosby previously said receiving the full $20 million from the county was an essential part of Mote’s plan and said the project “doesn’t get done” without it. Although a Mote official was not available for an interview ahead of publication, in an email, the organization said it had “well over $35 million in donations and commitments” toward the project.

County officials said Mote leadership had shared a sense of urgency regarding a financial commitment from Sarasota County because it hoped to pursue state funding, as well. As a result, commissioners Al Maio, Mike Moran and Christian Ziegler suggested the county should try to move quickly to offer a show of support ahead of January’s legislative session.

“I would hate for us to have to wait and miss that window,” Ziegler said.

But commissioners Nancy Detert and Charles Hines said allocating $20 million toward the $130 million aquarium project would have unknown effects on the county’s finances.

“We need to have this public discussion, go through the numbers, go through the financing and say, ‘If we can’t do $20 million, what can we do?’” Hines said. “Or maybe we can do $20 million, but then you have to then cut advertising form Visit Sarasota, or you need to cut back someplace else or we gotta go out and borrow it from someplace else.”

Selby Gardens is revising its original master plan, depicted in this concept image. Although the initial master plan was controversial, Selby leaders hope the new proposal will garner broad support.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens

Project details: Botanical gardens campus renovation
Project cost: $92 million for initial proposal; revised cost estimates to be determined
Project timeline: To be determined

The city’s rejection of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ proposed master plan project was one of the highest-profile stories of 2019. Heading into 2020, Selby Gardens began plotting a strategy to scale down its plans to earn the city’s approval — and support from members of the community who opposed the initial proposal.

Selby officials hope to hold a community workshop regarding revisions to the master plan early this year. Although a new plan has not been finalized, the nonprofit has already announced three guidelines for any new proposal.

All three points are designed to address leading concerns regarding the rejected proposal. Selby will no longer be seeking a revision to the city’s comprehensive plan to facilitate the implementation of a master plan. As a result, plans for a new parking structure on the property would have to meet a maximum height limit of 45 feet. Additionally, a new restaurant on the property would need to qualify as an accessory use to the botanical gardens rather than a stand-alone operation.

“We feel these are major compromises,” Selby President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki said.

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