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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018 1 year ago

County faces questions on project priorities

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County funding is a coveted resource for Sarasota organizations embarking upon major capital projects, but how do officials choose recipients of public money?
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

As Marie Selby Botanical Gardens embarked upon a $92 million fundraising campaign this year to support a campus renovation project, its board of directors targeted Sarasota County as a potential source of cash.

Selby President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki thinks there’s a persuasive argument for investing public funds into the private bayfront botanical garden. Selby says the implementation of its master plan is expected to have an economic impact of $78 million and create more than 2,800 jobs in the region.

There’s at least one major challenge for Selby as it pursues financial support from the county: It’s far from alone.

County funding is a coveted resource for organizations embarking upon major capital projects in the near future. Earlier this year, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium made a formal request for $20 million in tourist development tax money as it pursues a $120 million aquarium project in Nathan Benderson Park. The Bay Sarasota is seeking a funding partnership that could divert tens of millions of county dollars toward the development of a bayfront park near downtown Sarasota.

Rominiecki knows other groups are just as interested in county funds as Selby — and the leaders behind each project likely believe their cause is as worthy as any other. That’s why Rominiecki and other Selby board members spoke at November and December County Commission meetings with a request: not that Selby receive funding, but that the county establish a process for evaluating the merits of outside funding requests.

“We’re in favor of all of the projects that benefit the community, there’s no doubt about that,” Rominiecki said. “We’re just asking a fair and equitable process be put in place.”

Rominiecki said Selby has had limited dialogue with county officials. In the summer, after seeing other groups come forward with funding requests, she attended a public meeting and expressed Selby’s interest in receiving county money for its master plan project. The board suggested she send a formal request to county staff, which she did in June. Since then, Rominiecki said, she hasn’t heard back.

She hasn’t heard a direct response to Selby’s push for a more formalized funding request and review process, either. But she thinks it’s a reasonable concept, pointing to existing county procedures for allocating human services and cultural arts funding.

Some county officials agree: At a Dec. 14 County Commission retreat, Commissioner Charles Hines expressed a desire to create a more rigorous process for funding requests from organizations such as Selby and Mote. If a group wants tourist development tax funds, Hines wanted detailed information on how a project would affect tourism.

“Mote’s a great organization,” Hines said. “Will that aquarium put heads in beds? I don’t know; it might. Will Selby’s request put heads in beds? Will bayfront (redevelopment)? That needs to be part of our discussion, rather than, ‘I like that project; I think it’s good.’”

Strapped for cash

To date, the question of whether the county dedicates funds to a capital project — including those with a private partner — has been left to the policy discretion of the County Commission.

In 2009, the county committed $31 million toward renovations at Ed Smith Stadium to lure MLB’s Baltimore Orioles to Sarasota for spring training. In 2011, the county agreed to revise the tourist tax to support improvements at Nathan Benderson Park, dedicating $19.5 million toward the construction of the rowing facility.

Most recently, in 2017, the county allocated $21 million in tourist tax funds toward the construction of a new North Port spring training facility for the Atlanta Braves baseball team. The commitment came in just below the maximum spending threshold without triggering a countywide referendum.

These funding requests served as a guideline for Mote. In February, the research institution announced its intention to build a four-story, $130 million aquarium facility on county-owned land in Benderson Park. The county has already committed to allowing Mote to use 15 acres near University Parkway and Interstate 75, approving an agreement that could ultimately sell the land for $100.

Mote is still seeking an additional $20 million commitment from the county — a figure Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby sees as essential to build the aquarium. Like Rominiecki, Crosby believes there is a compelling argument for why the county should dedicate financial resources to his organization’s project. He said the two-year construction of the aquarium was expected to generate an economic benefit of $280 million, and that the aquarium itself would have an impact of $28 million annually.

He also cited Mote’s planned education partnerships as a public benefit the project would provide, both as an asset for students and as a way to protect the region’s natural resources. 

“The case for support is so strong,” Crosby said.

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium
County staff is still reviewing Mote's request for $20 million in support for a new aquarium at Nathan Benderson Park.

Crosby has acknowledged some competing interest in county funds, but he expressed confidence in county officials’ ability to sort through and prioritize any requests it receives. He also suggested Mote’s project could be seen more favorably because its plan came forward first.

“We are, in essence, to the point we’re ready to go,” Crosby said in a June interview with the Sarasota Observer. “We are in a position that is, I think, a bit further along — in fact, quite a bit further along — than any other organization that I am familiar with.”

If earlier projects inspired Mote’s funding request, they may have also hampered it. Although the commission has offered strong support for the aquarium project, moving quickly to outline a land agreement, the board has been more apprehensive about allocating money. County staff is in the process of reviewing Mote’s economic impact analysis before returning to the commission with a report and recommendations.

Sarasota is in the midst of a strong tourism period, which has fed the outside interest in tourist tax revenue. But after recently allocating significant resources to the North Port stadium, the county has begun to feel some strain on those funds. In October, the county approved the reallocation of tourist tax revenue earmarked for promoting the region as a destination, citing a need to fund $16.5 million in improvements at Ed Smith Stadium during the next decade.

During preliminary discussions of the Mote funding requests, commissioners expressed a desire to move cautiously when plotting future tourist tax spending.

“We can’t always think we’re going to have record year after record year after record year,” Commissioner Charles Hines said in June.

At least one group seeking county funding is foregoing a request for tourist tax money — at least in the short-term — because it doesn’t think enough resources will be available. The Bay Sarasota, which is plotting a redevelopment plan for 52 acres of city-owned land that could cost $200 million, is instead seeking county approval of a tax increment financing district. The proposal would capture some city and county property tax revenue near the bayfront site and invest it into the project.

The Bay Sarasota
The Bay Sarasota is confident the county will be a partner on the redevelopment project, but a funding agreement has not yet been finalized.

Based on preliminary conversations with staff, The Bay Managing Director Bill Waddill is optimistic the county will be an enthusiastic partner on the project in some form. Like Crosby, Waddill said he wasn’t concerned about excessive demand for a limited amount of public money, pointing out the county represents just a portion of each group’s fundraising strategy.

“We think there is plenty of capacity in our community to do all of the projects that have been suggested, including ours,” Waddill said.

Heading into the new year, it’s unclear whether county officials are interested in establishing the type of formalized process Selby Gardens for which is calling. Through a spokesman, county staff affirmed the process of reviewing Mote’s funding request is still ongoing and will be revisited at a future date.

Hines suggested the county could consider the parameters of a system for evaluating funding requests during a broader discussion of Visit Sarasota County’s strategic planning process, set to take place in early 2019. 

As the county faces a decision about how to address Mote’s funding request and others, Selby leaders are hopeful it will be clear why, exactly, those decisions are ultimately made.

“Like I said, we’re in favor of all the projects that benefit the Sarasota region,” Rominiecki said. “We are just asking for a fair process.”

This article has been updated with comments from a Dec. 14 County Commission retreat and Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium CEO Michael Crosby.

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