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Sarasota Thursday, Jun. 10, 2021 5 days ago

St. Armands carousel concept sparks controversy

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Amid criticism from nearby residents, the group behind a proposal to place a carousel in St. Armands Circle is asking for community input before city officials weigh in.
by: David Conway Deputy Managing Editor

Jeff Koffman has made a business out of operating carousels, but on Tuesday, he found himself at St. Armands Key Lutheran Church attempting to persuade those in attendance that merry-go-rounds aren’t the crowd-generating attraction the audience feared it might be.

Koffman is an investor in Ride Entertainment, a company that runs or maintains seven amusement facilities in New York City, including carousels in such locations as Battery Park. Now a resident of Golden Gate Point, Koffman approached the city about the prospect of placing a carousel in St. Armands Circle Park, the public park at the center of the St. Armands commercial district.

City Manager Marlon Brown encouraged Koffman to meet with stakeholders in the area and hold a public meeting to discuss the concept. That’s why Koffman organized a workshop Tuesday to present his team’s vision for a carousel in the center of the circle and gather feedback from a crowd of about two dozen.

Koffman offered few specific details about any installation on the Circle, noting the idea was still in a preliminary phase. He offered some descriptions of what the project might entail: a circus-themed carousel “that will be first class and consistent with the standards one would expect in St. Armands,” he said.

During a meeting focused primarily about the general concept of placing a carousel in St. Armands Circle Park, the majority of the speakers were St. Armands residents who feared the amenity would generate traffic, safety and noise problems.

“I believe what it will end up doing is creating more traffic, creating pedestrian problems,” St. Armands resident Barbara Shapiro said.

The group making the pitch argued the ride would not be a meaningful source of new traffic, instead drawing its ridership from people visiting the existing stores and restaurants in the area.

“What we’re trying to benefit from is the audience that’s already in St. Armands Circle,” said Jen Horvat, a marketing professional involved with the proposal. “I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Tuesday’s workshop was not the first time members of the public had the opportunity to learn about the carousel proposal. In February, the St. Armands Business Improvement District heard a presentation and offered some support for Koffman’s vision, calling it a potential opportunity to generate activity in an underutilized space. But the first iteration of the concept drew unanimous opposition from the board of the St. Armands Residents Association, citing concerns about possible detrimental effects to the community.

Koffman said he refined his proposal to account for the initial feedback he got. The first iteration of his plan called for additional attractions, such as games, swings and areas for photos, all in a roped-off area requiring an entry fee. At Tuesday’s workshop, Koffman said he has scaled back the concept to focus solely on the carousel.

Jen Horvat discusses a proposal to place a carousel at St. Armands Circle Park during a community meeting on Tuesday, June 9.

For most aspects of the ride, Koffman shared no firm plans Tuesday. He did not disclose the expense associated with building the carousel, but he noted Ride Entertainment’s high-end carousels cost as much as $5 million. There was no price for riding the carousel, though Horvat said the group would take into account St. Armands Circle clientele in determining the appropriate cost. Koffman said the group intended to share some revenue from the ride with the city and St. Armands Business Improvement District.

Koffman said the concept was inspired by his childhood in Binghamton, New York, a city that bills itself as the “carousel capital of the world.” Koffman pitched the ride as an opportunity to provide a memorable experience for children and families visiting St. Armands. Members of the project team said the carousel could feature the work of local artists to reflect the history and character of St. Armands.

“It’s wonderful to create those kinds of memories that I had as a kid,” Koffman said.

At least six speakers at the workshop said they did not believe the carousel was appropriate for St. Armands Circle Park. St. Armands Key residents said the area already experiences traffic issues, particularly during season, and they questioned whether another attraction would exacerbate existing problems.

“Everyone wants to come here and wants a piece of this crown jewel we have, but there’s a right way and a wrong way,” resident Charles Haff said.

In addition to the endorsement from St. Armands commercial property owners, the carousel concept has gotten support from some barrier islands residents. According to a February email to the St. Armands Residents Association, the initial proposal drew opposition from nine members, support from six and an indecisive response from eight.

Heidi Brandt is a member of the Lido Key Residents Association who helped organize Tuesday’s meeting. She said Lido residents have expressed interest in the idea and that, as a parent, she felt the carousel would be a welcome addition to the Circle. Brandt also pushed back against attendees at the workshop who suggested a children’s attraction near a busy road would create a safety hazard, noting that St. Armands hosts an annual Halloween event without issue.

“I assure you that parents of 4-year-olds will not let go of their hands and let them run into traffic,” Brandt said.

Brandt said the park is a city-owned property, and St. Armands residents aren’t the sole stakeholder with an interest in what happens there. Shapiro acknowledged that point, but she believes the city should show deference to the individuals most likely to be affected by any change.

“Why should someone who lives 4 miles away tell me what should be in my backyard?” Shapiro said.

Throughout the meeting, Koffman and the other presenters continued to rebut the assertion that the carousel would cause traffic issues. Horvat attempted to draw a parallel to other amenities designed to capture a slice of an existing audience at a central destination.

“I’ve never said, ‘I’m not going to the mall because of the kids’ court,’” Horvat said.

Jerry Fogle, the city’s parks and recreation director, said officials would continue to gather input on the concept. Should the project advance, the city said any proposal would go before the City Commission for final approval. As he pushes forward amid vocal concern, Koffman said he was intent on facilitating an ongoing conversation pertaining to the carousel.

“It’s a process,” Koffman said. “I need to talk to the city. I’m listening.”

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