Rod Warner’s enthusiasm for roundabouts wasn’t just limited to the public realm — the city meetings and workshops where he repeatedly preached the efficacy of roundabouts, or the citizen advisory board on which he served for more than a decade, or the hundreds of one-on-one meetings with officials at various levels.
Warner threw himself fully into his roundabout advocacy, a passion that helped Sarasota leaders and residents embrace the roadway-engineering tool. Warner's son attests that his father was a true believer: When Ty Warner, who lives in the Chicago area, would visit his family in Sarasota, he knew he would quickly get an update on his dad’s favorite subject.
“When we came back, the first thing he'd do is start taking me on a drive around the community to show me the latest roundabout,” Ty Warner said.
Although two of his children worked as planners, Warner had no professional experience in that realm. It was a spark that began with his work on the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Association Citizen Advisory Council in 1999. It grew as he became taken with the idea that roundabouts could serve as a simple solution to many problems plaguing the city.
“He's a really good listener and a really good learner,” Ty Warner said. “He just got more and more interested in this kind of stuff. He was kind of off and running.”
Warner, dubbed “Mr. Roundabout” by many in Sarasota, died July 9. He was 79.
Warner moved his family to Sarasota in 1977, relocated by his employer, Storer Communications, a cable company. He was quickly enamored with the city, Ty Warner said, and was eager to do whatever he could to help improve the civic realm.
“I think he always appreciated the huge range of people that he was able to meet and interact with,” Ty Warner said.
For a decade, Warner acted as a one-man band of sorts, advocating for the development of “complete streets” and improved pedestrian conditions in the city. In 2011, he helped found U.S. 41 Momentum, a group focused on establishing a series of roundabouts along the state highway and elsewhere in the area.
Over the past 15 years, Sarasota has evolved from a roundabout-shy town to one that embraces the roadway-engineering tool. City leaders credit Warner with helping to change resident attitudes.
“I swear, he calmed the waters,” Vice Mayor Suzanne Atwell said. “He had the passion, and he had the civility.”
Warner called himself a "roundabout evangelist," extolling virtues such as improved safety, reduced congestion and better environmental health. Alongside U.S. 41 Momentum members Roger Barry, Ron McCollough and David Morriss, Warner envisioned a corridor with 11 roundabouts on the state road from University Boulevard to Orange Avenue.
If handled properly — with artwork in the centers of the roundabouts — Warner believed the corridor could be a local icon on par with the bayfront or the John Ringling Causeway Bridge.
“That would be our new view,” Warner said in a 2013 interview with the Sarasota Observer. “Now that would make an impression.”
Roundabouts, once a hotly contested proposition in Sarasota, still have their critics, even as they grow in popularity. McCollough said Warner’s ability to get along with people on an opposing side of an issue — even as he worked stridently to change their opinions — was an important tool as the group met with local leaders.
“He was a person who could work well with anyone, even those who maybe disagreed with him,” McCollough said.
In addition to his roundabout work, Warner was also an active member of the First United Methodist Church, serving as church council chairman. Following a funeral in his hometown of Jackson, Ohio, this weekend, a memorial service is planned at First United sometime in the near future, Ty Warner said.
At a city transportation workshop Monday, with representatives from the city, county, MPO and Florida Department of Transportation in attendance, officials held a moment of silence to recognize Warner’s passing. The city is currently working toward making Warner’s vision a reality: Two roundabouts at 10th and 14th streets, currently in development, serve as the first step toward a planned system of roundabouts along U.S. 41.
Despite the effectiveness of his advocacy, Warner didn’t initially set out to become a force that changed the face of the city.
“I don't think he necessarily thought it would get like this,” Ty Warner said. “He was just trying to be faithful to what he was called to do.”
Now, as work continues on enhancing Sarasota’s transportation network, the enduring focus on roundabouts serves as a testament to Warner’s dedication to improving the community in which he lived.
“The mark of any success he brought to the table was that the improvements being made in Sarasota were not just limited to just one guy,” Ty Warner said. “He would have been successful if it keeps on going without him, and I think that's how he would have seen it”