Michael Klauber, longtime Sarasota restaurant entrepreneur and now chairman of Visit Sarasota, probably knows firsthand now what it means “to herd cats.”
As chair of Visit Sarasota, Klauber also landed in the chairman’s role for the group, Bayfront 20:20. That’s the coalition of about 20 neighborhood, arts, cultural and business organizations considered stakeholders in the future development of the 42 public acres surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center.
Over the past six months, at the behest of the Sarasota City Commission, Klauber and Visit Sarasota President Virginia Haley have been herding all these cats (and their hundreds of members) into discussions about what everyone envisions that property to be for, say, the next 50 years.
Yes, talk about herding cats. One of the consultants helping in this effort said Monday at a Bayfront 20:20 meeting she had 200 pages of public comments on what Sarasotans want on those 42 acres.
Everyone has an opinion.
And to think Klauber and Haley can pull together a “consensus” — a consensus of how many …52,000 residents of the city of Sarasota? — is like catching the wind.
Indeed, all this makes us think of the movie “Groundhog Day.” This process has played in every community in America when it comes to deciding what to do with prime public real estate. On Longboat Key, for instance, the Town Commission has wrestled for years with how to redevelop its Bayfront Park and is now tackling how to create a town center.
Up the road in St. Petersburg, the City Council unveiled Monday eight prospective designs for a new St. Petersburg Pier, its iconic but outdated upside-down pyramid on the bayfront.
When we read the commentary of Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano on that city’s pier process, it read as if he were writing the story of the inevitable future in Sarasota (see box at right).
If there is agreement among the Bayfront 20:20 stakeholders, it’s probably the first of six principles the group believes are crucial to the foundation of a master plan. In its latest iteration, it states:
“Sarasota’s Bayfront will be an iconic, public destination that welcomes the diversity of the Sarasota region and serves as a venue for multi-generational, inter-neighborhood, broadbased enjoyment of two of our city’s great strengths, our cultural institutions and our natural environment on Sarasota Bay.”
No one can argue against that. It’s a smartly crafted statement that offers something for everyone. And yet, even with that as an accepted goal, a few of the stakeholders at the tables at a Bayfront 20:20 meeting Monday had widely differing views of what that means. You can sum it up this way:
At one end of the spectrum, some stakeholders see the future of that 42 acres as primarily open, park space with large vistas of the bay. At the other end, some stakeholders see those 42 acres being devoted foremost to Sarasota’s claim to fame: cultural arts venues, along with some commercial operations to support them.
And then, as one of the consultants interjected, the result most likely will be somewhere in between. Committee decisions are never one side or the other; they’re typically mushy compromises.
Who decides? What will it cost?
The details of what ultimately ends up on the bayfront, however, are long way off. Perhaps more important are these questions:
• How to get from this point to a tangible master plan? Who, specifically, will have the authority to make the decisions to create a master plan? Will the city staff act as master planner and developer? The city commissioners? (Please, no, on both counts.)
• And, who will pay?
Answers to those questions take us to Memphis and Walt Disney World.
At Monday’s Bayfront 20:20 stakeholders meeting, consultants from HR&A Advisors shared how Memphis redeveloped its under-developed riverfront. Thanks to the vision of its elected mayor, the City Council agreed to form the Riverfront Development Corp., a nonprofit corporation that operated with private and public funding. Its mission was to create a master plan for a world-class destination along the five-mile riverfront and then manage it, promote it and bring it to fruition.
Operating since 2000, the Riverfront Development Corp. succeeded in its goals. It has reinvigorated the city’s riverfront and created a popular connection to the river for Memphians.
But as often occurs with public-private partnerships, Memphis’ Riverfront Development Corp. has had its financial challenges. This the lead from an October story in the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
“Faced with the same funding and bureaucratic challenges that have shadowed its 15-year existence, the Riverfront Development Corp. launched a five-year strategic plan on Monday, focused as much on revenue-generating and cost-cutting options as it is on new projects and amenities on the Memphis waterfront.”
The Reedy Creek model
Let’s go to Disney World.
We all know Walt Disney was a creative genius. One of his greatest achievements after buying 26,000 acres of Central Florida pasture and citrus land was the formation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Sanctioned by the Legislature, the Reedy Creek Improvement District is a special taxing district that operates as a municipality does. It provides all of the public services at Disney World — electricity, water, roads, fire, police, transportation, emergency services, land-use regulation, planning, building codes, drainage, waste treatment and environmental services. And only the landowners within the district (primarily Walt Disney World) pay to build and maintain those services. A five-member board of supervisors, elected by property owners, control the RCID government.
We all know how this has worked — extraordinarily well.
Sarasota city commissioners should take note. It’s a long stretch to think they would ever relinquish control of nitpicking every detail of that 42 acres of bayfront. They love to meddle.
But as 2015 unfolds, commissioners should take it upon themselves to learn from others — their successes and mistakes.
We know this: Take your pick of cities and big, public cultural and recreational projects. You would be hard-pressed to find flourishing, economically sustainable success stories when those projects are left in the hands of the collective government.
ST. PETERSBURG’S PIER
You people cannot win. No way, no how. A design by Michelangelo, with input from Frank Lloyd Wright, would get trashed by folks on one side of town or the other.
We are 10 years into this discussion and still haven’t bought a screwdriver.
We cannot agree on whether we care more about preserving the past or forging a new direction. Whether beauty is more important than function. Whether we build farther out or closer to the shoreline.
Theoretically, Monday’s unveiling of the latest proposals gets us one step closer to completion. We’ll have committee meetings in January, a public survey in February, the selection of a winner in March and, finally, City Council approval on April 2.
Personally, … I’m predicting rancor in January, accusations in February, chaos in March and nothing but pelican poop by April.
There will never be universal agreement on a pier design …
— John Romano, Tampa Bay Times
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