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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 24, 2021 7 months ago

Parks board checks in on master plan progress

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As the City Commission prepares to work on the 2022 budget, an advisory group wants an update on how the city is handling the goals it identified in a 2019 report.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

When city staff finished a master plan for maintaining and improving its parks in 2019, unsurprisingly, the document didn’t account for the possible emergence of a global pandemic.

Despite the unforeseen challenge, the work of managing public parks hasn’t stopped. Ahead of the City Commission’s production of a budget for 2021-22, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection Advisory Board is interested in putting together an update on the progress that’s been made in achieving the goals outlined in that master plan — and the tasks that still remain.

“I think we’ve justified the action (recommended in the master plan),” board member Ted Wilson said at a June 17 meeting. “Now we just need to know when it’s going to get done, and is there any change in the cost factor?”

In 2019, staff’s recommendation for implementing the master plan called for $50 million in spending over a decade, beginning in 2021. Of that total, $18 million was for deferred maintenance of facilities below the city’s standards while $32 million was budgeted for improvements based on priorities identified in a community study.

When staff presented its plan to the City Commission, elected officials expressed some hesitancy, opting to accept the report rather than formally adopting it as a funding road map. Jerry Fogle, the city’s parks and recreation manager, said COVID-19 has further complicated the process of addressing community needs related to parks, particularly after the 2021 budget included a freeze on filling vacant positions.

With that freeze set to be lifted in the administration’s budget proposal for 2022, Fogle said the parks department’s priorities remain similar to those staff had in 2019.

“We’re focusing on ensuring our parks — and all the green space throughout the city we maintain — are at the highest level we can keep them at this time,” Fogle said.

Asked to prioritize its most pressing needs, Fogle said the parks department has emphasized deferred maintenance when it gets opportunities to pursue infrastructure-related projects. Fogle said the city is working on upgrading bathrooms, sidewalks and lighting in its parks. Fogle said those priorities were informed by community surveys during the master-planning process.

“Those are pretty clear and easy to put on the top of the list,” he said.

The parks department has been able to finish master plan-inspired improvement projects at Eastwood Park, Paul Thorpe Park, Mary Dean Park and Fredd “Glossie” Atkins Park. The city is also nearing the completion of a series of upgrades at the Lido Pavilion.

In May, the commission discussed a proposed capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2022 through 2026 that included $9 million in funding for parks projects. The proposed capital improvement plan includes $3.3 million for unspecified upgrades, with Avion Park, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Shenandoah Park and Orange Avenue Park listed as sites in line for improvements as prescribed in the master plan. Fogle mentioned upgrades at Bayfront Park and the construction of a park in the Rosemary District as other initiatives the city hoped to pursue.

Sue Martin, the city’s general manager of parks and recreation, noted the master plan was created with the knowledge that some flexibility would be necessary. Conditions change, and priorities can shift at the will of the City Commission — Martin highlighted the emergence of Wi-Fi in the parks as an initiative officials placed increased emphasis on because of the pandemic.

Rather than providing hard-and-fast rules for how the city will improve parks, Martin and Fogle said the master plan was more of a guide and that staff would attempt to stay flexible.

“A lot of the purpose of this master plan is to say this is the condition we got our parks back in, this is what work needs to be done, and this is how much money it’s going to take, so there’s not sticker shock when we present this,” Martin said.

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