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Sarasota Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 8 years ago

Our View


Bird Key Park isn’t much of an aesthetic gem. That is, the parking areas and asphalt that make up the park. Yes, the view of and access to the bay are extraordinary; those are the gems. But everyone likely would admit the parking lot and beach areas look scruffy and in need of updating.

Sarasota city staff has proposed a redesign of the park that will eliminate 15 parking places and add a 13-foot-wide trail that will run the length of the park between the parking areas and the shore.

Park users are almost in arms over this. Nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition protesting the proposed changes.

There are valid arguments on both sides. City staff members envision this as one of the links in what they call the West Bayfront Multi-Use Recreational Trail (MURT). As City Engineer Alex DavisShaw wrote in a memo on the park recently:

“Imagine traveling from downtown Sarasota to South Lido Key without relying on costly fuel and without increasing greenhouse gas emissions in our community.”

Please, spare us the enviro-babble.

The memo went on to say the lost parking would not be an issue. “The parking lot at Bird Key Park is underutilized and will be reconfigured,” DavisShaw wrote. “With peak-parking needs occurring only on holidays and special events, city staff is comfortable that there will be adequate parking available for park visitors.”

Even so, park users object to the loss of any parking and the placement of the new trail, noting that bicyclists and others traversing the trail would become a hazard to those who park their cars and then must cross the trail to get to the water. They envision collision city.

All of this points to part of the flaws of public ownership and democratic rule. Everyone has a different opinion; lawmakers try to please everyone; and then when the bureaucrats get it, the new rules create new dissatisfactions that spawn more new laws and regulations, and on and on. It reminds us of the health-care debate.

In this case DavisShaw wrote in a memo that the city held two public workshops on the park. It appointed a 14-member task force, including residents, neighborhood associations and bicycle and “multi-modal advocates.”

“The Parks, Recreation, Environmental Protection Advisory Board, which is appointed by the City Commission, received updates, including several presentations from staff and consultants, and numerous other public meetings were held. As a result, the MURT construction plans mirror the wishes of those who were actively involved throughout the process,” wrote DavisShaw.
Somewhere in the process, the objectors apparently didn’t get their point across. Or weren’t involved in the process.

Now what?

How about a design contest? Ask the protesters to submit another design, or several designs. Display them at the park, let the public cast a straw (one valid vote per person) and, in the end, present the results to the City Commission for a final decision.

+ Cultural capital?
The vice mayor of Antwerp, Belgium, spoke this week at the Ringling College of Art and Design about the influence and importance of the arts on the economy and welfare of Antwerp. In that city, population 452,000, city taxpayers contribute $55 million a year to the arts.

Our view, of course, is that tax is legalized plunder and theft. Funding the arts is not a role for government. In a similar vein, committing $30 million or more of taxpayer money to the refurbishment of Ed Smith Stadium for the for-profit Baltimore Orioles is plunder, as well — even if most of the money comes from the bed tax paid by tourists.

Still, the Antwerp arts and Orioles funding stand in contrast to how much of the county’s $14 million-a-year tourist-tax collections go to Sarasota’s arts — $2.6 million, or 19% of the total.

Priorities are askew. While Sarasota likes to tout itself as the cultural capital of Florida, actions don’t necessarily back that up. In these trying days, there’s not an arts organization in the two-county area that isn’t struggling to raise funds. Every one of them is going back to its core donor base of wealthy individuals — the same old, same old — and pleading to squeeze a larger investment.

There’s a group missing from the list of contributors and investors, though. The region’s corporate sector is underrepresented. Just look through the program books of the arts organizations. The absence is conspicuous.

This is perplexing. On the one hand, it’s safe to say, every business owner would like to see his revenues and income grow. And all of these business owners also know that, in most instances, to make more you must invest — in infrastructure, in a new product or in people. Part of that investment is investing in what makes Sarasota unique and attractive — the arts and environment.

Now, more than ever, the region’s businesses need to step up. You must feed the goose that lays the eggs.

+ Anti-business attitude
The disdain for business in the city of Sarasota, sadly, is far too palpable.

This is always puzzling, because without a vibrant business sector, a community lives a self-fulfilling prophecy of economic and real-property decline. After 20 years of trying to push commercial businesses out, the residents of Longboat Key are finally realizing this. The tide of the town has shifted; residents now recognize that a thriving commercial base is essential to quality of life and the value of their property.

That message hasn’t sunk in yet in the city of Sarasota, particularly at City Hall.

Last week, when Sarasota Observer City Editor Robin Roy accompanied the Green Space Policy Committee on a tour of Main Street, Roy took notes on the comments of Tim Litchet, the city’s director of neighborhood and development services.

As Litchet led the group past such enterprises as El Greco, the new Braza restaurant, CNL Bank and the 1350 Main condominium, he commented:

• “Why does a business sign a lease and assume that it can pave over everything?”
• “If an owner comes to me and says, ‘I need more tables,’ do I allow it?”
• “As I walk downtown, I’m struggling to understand why we need more impervious outside. How many more seats are we going to allow? How much do we owe the new restaurant to help it be successful?”
• “Do we want to decide that (El Greco) has enough table space and can’t encroach anymore (on greenspace)?”

Litchet is a nice person and takes his job seriously. But clearly he is troubled and has a bias about the city’s outdoor dining. It’s evident this bias is not one that favors the dynamics of a free-flowing marketplace or creating an atmosphere and framework for business success and economic growth.

For Litchet, it appears increased outdoor dining is a negative, not a positive.

Consider a different perspective. If outdoor dining draws shoppers and diners to Main Street and boosts the sales of local merchants and restaurateurs, wouldn’t that be a desired outcome? If their sales go up, so will the tax revenues of the city.

Most of us have lived nearly our entire adult lives reading about every city’s fight to revive its dying downtown. If the marketplace wants and supports outdoor dining, then why discourage or squelch it?

To be sure, there’s an obligation of the city — the safety of pedestrians on the city’s public rights of way.

But except for that, it would be a welcome and needed change to see a shift in attitude and practice at City Hall. Let the market work. Foster free enterprise. Don’t disdain it.

Arts and economic development
The following dollar amounts are from the Sarasota County operating budget. Combined the county was budgeted to spend $13,977,692 from bed-tax collections. The percentages are the portion of the bed tax used to fund beaches, the arts and tourism advertising.

Tourist Devel Beach Maintenance     $4,264,843      30.5%
TDC Beach Renourishment              $3,457,939       24.7
Tourist Development Arts                  $2,624,493       18.7
Tourist Develop Promotions              $3,630,417       25.9
Total TDC Funding                          $13,977,692

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