The official launch of a park district is an opportunity for the city of Sarasota to improve its public parks and continue long-term strategic work, officials say.
On Oct. 1, Jerry Fogle cut the ribbon on a new playground at Pioneer Park, one of the first of a long list of projects he hopes to complete under the banner of the city’s parks and recreation district.
That day also marked the start of a new fiscal year, and the city’s 2019-20 budget is the first one that includes funding for a parks and recreation district. Fogle, the city’s parks and recreation director, said the city’s commitment to his department — $17.5 million in the past two budgets alone and 14 additional positions included in the 2020 budget — is helping staff focus on improving the assets it manages.
“That helps tremendously when you’re able to have people on the ground who are able to do the work to improve our parks,” Fogle said. “Having additional resources has also helped tremendously.”
To some extent, the “park district” distinction for this fiscal year is just a technicality. The city previously funded parks expenses through its general fund, and the park district is funded primarily through a $7.2 million transfer from the general fund.
The district was created, so the city could collect a separate property tax for park funding, a move designed to insulate the parks and recreation budget from future cuts. However, during a series of meetings this summer, the City Commission declined to establish a new tax in the 2019-20 budget and instead opted for the general fund transfer.
Still, Fogle sees some significance in the establishment of the park district. Since Fogle joined the city, he has witnessed the city take several steps to prioritize its parks and recreation offerings. He was hired to manage the Robert L. Taylor Community Complex, a $12 million north Sarasota recreation center that opened in 2011. In 2016, he was selected as the director of a newly created parks and recreation department.
He has overseen the creation of a parks master plan, which calls for $50 million in spending to restore and enhance the city’s parks. Although the commission has not authorized any long-term spending to implement the master plan, Fogle said park district staff is working on a strategy for incorporating the projects identified into the city’s capital improvement plan.
In the meantime, Fogle said the district is focused on catching up on deferred maintenance — improving amenities that have deteriorated during more fallow times for the parks budget. He said crews have already improved restrooms and repainted an archway at Bayfront Park.
One additional priority for the district is effectively communicating with the public. In September, the park district launched a new website with information on park facilities, upcoming projects, events and more. In 2018-19, the city approved the creation of a marketing coordinator position, which Fogle hopes will help raise awareness to the city’s parks assets — and the work the district will be doing going forward.
“We haven’t had a parks and recreation department, so we need to let people know we exist, we are here and what we have to offer,” Fogle said.