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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 12, 2014
This is the latest draft concept for redeveloping Bayfront Park.
This is the latest draft concept for redeveloping Bayfront Park.
  • Longboat Key
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From the looks of the concept drawing to the right, if Bayfront Park were redeveloped accordingly, it would be a big improvement over what exists today.

Go for it.

Well, not so fast.

This is one of those perplexing puzzles of “public” property — of all taxpayers owning property. Who ultimately should decide how Bayfront Park will look and what amenities will be included and not included?

At present, it looks like it’s going to be a joint decision of the Longboat Key Town Commission and the Sarasota County Commission. To be sure, the process has been somewhat democratic. Each body has heard or read the desires of a few taxpayers, of those who attended public meetings.

So you could say there is indeed public input in the concept drawing, albeit a tiny amount.

But when you look at the drawing and the list of amenities that a sampling of Longboat residents expressed to the Urban Land Institute Implementation Advisory Committee, nearly half of the amenities residents want are not included.

What’s more, there is no swimming pool, an amenity a few Village residents lobbied for in the early 2000s. What about a netted golf driving range? Golfers who don’t belong to the Longboat Key Club have said it’s not fair to have a town-owned tennis center but nothing for the golfers.

Or, if there’s no baseball field, what about batting cages? How about a rock-climbing wall? Skeet shooting?

You get the point. While this concept drawing is attractive, no matter what anyone designs, it’s impossible to satisfy the recreational desires of every Longboat Key taxpayer, much less Sarasota County taxpayers, who own 3.88 acres of the park.

So why should those whose desired amenities will be excluded, and who likely would not use the park, be forced to subsidize it in their property taxes?

We can hear the responses: Public parks benefit everyone and enhance the value of a community.
But when a resource is left in the hands of the government, when common, taxpayer-owned property is turned over to the government, you often get what’s known as the “tragedy of the commons.”

When the Pilgrims first tried to survive in America, everyone owned everything in common. They nearly starved. When their leaders created private property, they produced food in abundance. When you let fishermen fish with big nets for free, they deplete the stock of fish.

Extrapolate. If Bayfront Park features an attractive kayak launch and dog parks that are free, you can envision overuse and abuse. We all know what happened on South Lido Key at the free, public kayak launches. The kayak rental companies swarmed to the site at no cost to them, creating parking and maintenance problems. Tragedy of the commons.

And then there are the maintenance costs? Who will bear them? The town and county no doubt will create a cost-sharing interlocal agreement addressing who pays. But you can be sure of this: If the park becomes a draw for park users at a much higher rate than exists at little-used Bayfront Park now, maintenance costs for taxpayers surely will rise. Who should pay?

All of this leads us to think about alternatives to the present course. Sure, most Longboat Key residents probably would acknowledge that Bayfront Park in its present state is a vastly underutilized asset. It’s nice to have, and the view of the bay is spectacular, but face it: For the most part, it’s wasted.

What would be better?

A few ideas:

• Sell it for private development. We can hear the gasping of the late Kit Fernald, Longboat’s long-ago champion of Bayfront Park, not to mention everyone else.

But would the park really be missed? After all, Longboat Key could use some new, dazzling residential development.

What’s more, if the town sold the property, it could use the proceeds to create what nearly everyone says is desperately needed: a fabulous community center. At long last the town would have the money to build such a center where it should be — at a town center near Bay Isles Road.

• Privatize the park by selling or leasing it to a nonprofit, private conservancy. This has been done all over the United States with extraordinary success. Two of the most cited examples are Bryan and Central Parks in New York City. Ever since private conservancies took over those parks, New York taxpayers have not had to contribute one dime toward their maintenance and operations. And they are teeming with satisfied park goers.

You can envision a private concessionaire operating the property in a way that creates the most wanted amenities — and charges user fees for those who want the benefits.

There might even be multiple conservancies. The dog-lovers could pool their resources and own nonprofit dog parks. Or the Friends of Pickleball could create a nonprofit whose members operate and maintain the pickleball courts.

As Harris Kenny, a research assistant at the Reason Foundation, wrote in 2010, such public-private partnerships “represent a win-win-win. Parks advocates are ensured that parks facilities are no longer victim to inconsistent government revenue and political whims; taxpayers rest easy knowing that parks will be sustainably funded without tax gimmicks; and policymakers retain oversight over parks while harnessing the capital and expertise of the private sector.”

This is a once-in-50-years opportunity. And, yes, it’s time for the fate of Bayfront Park to be resolved. We should do it right. The present path is not all that convincing.

The Urban Land Institute Implementation Advisory Committee found widespread support for the following amenities at Bayfront Park. They are listed according to whether they are included or not included in the latest concept plans. We listed “multipurpose field with baseball” in both categories. The drawing includes an open play field but does not include a baseball field.

• Pickleball
• Restrooms
• Safe entrance
• Children’s area/playground
• Picnic area
• Covered pavilion
• Kayak rentals, storage
• Fishing pier
• Shuffleboard courts
• Multipurpose field, with baseball
• Performance/gathering/multiuse sports court

• New recreation building
• Bocce ball
• Multipurpose field, with baseball
• Exercise stations
• Track for running, jogging, walking
• Basketball court
• Volleyball/badminton
• Flexible event space
• Exercise/fitness classes
• Technology hub
• Craft-making area
• Bicycle facilities