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Thunder by the Bay concerns linger for businesses, officials

Following the 18th annual Thunder by the Bay, some people say it’s time for the motorcycle event to bolt from downtown.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. January 14, 2016
Although some businesses have complained about the event, Thunder by the Bay organizer Lucy Nicandri believes support for the festival far outweighs the opposition.
Although some businesses have complained about the event, Thunder by the Bay organizer Lucy Nicandri believes support for the festival far outweighs the opposition.
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John Andersen, owner of Mozaic Restaurant on Main Street, has been doing business in downtown Sarasota for 20 years.

That means he’s seen every Thunder by the Bay motorcycle festival, which was held for the 18th time Jan. 7 to Jan. 10. Andersen says he’s supportive of the event’s beneficiary, Suncoast Charities for Children, and he’s signed off on the downtown street closures associated with the festival.

Still, he says his business suffers every year as a result of Thunder by the Bay. This year, he felt motivated to speak up: On Monday, he sent an email to city commissioners detailing the negative impacts. On average, he said, he faces about $10,000 in losses relative to the surrounding weekends.

Andersen said he didn’t want to come off as an obstructionist, but he hopes a compromise can be reached that wouldn’t affect downtown businesses as much in the future.

“I have to think of the viability of the business and the staff I employ,” Andersen said. “From that perspective, it’s not easy — and there’s not really an easy solution.”

Andersen isn’t alone. Merchants on Palm Avenue have campaigned against closing their street for the event, and the owner of the Bijou Café sent a similar email to city officials decrying the impact of Thunder by the Bay.

Currently, the city has a moratorium on events that close Main Street between Orange and Gulfstream avenues, with a few exemptions written in. This summer, City Commissioner Susan Chapman suggested removing Thunder by the Bay’s exemption, stating the event has outgrown its location and should be moved elsewhere — perhaps out of the city.

Naming Nathan Benderson Park and North Port as potential alternative sites for Thunder by the Bay, Chapman said plainly that she doesn’t think the event is good for business in the city of Sarasota.

“I don’t think it is an economic driver,” Chapman said. “It’s an economic driver if you want to only have bars and honky tonks. If you want to have fine dining restaurants, if you want to have downtown theater and cultural events, if you want to have downtown residents, it doesn’t serve those purposes.”

Festival Director Lucy Nicandri said the event is growing in popularity, touting the involvement of Harley-Davidson this year as a mark of success. She believes the majority of Sarasota residents are happy with the event, citing attendance figures and its history in the community.

“I think it’s a few isolated voices that are getting the attention,” Nicandri said. “Shame on us, because now we need to start our own campaign to be very proactive and supportive of the event.”

According to a 2015 economic impact study commissioned by event organizers, last year’s Thunder by the Bay event had an estimated impact of more than $8 million on Sarasota County. About 90,000 people attended the event, 57% from out of town, the study states. Nicandri said the 2015 event raised $150,000 for charity.

Nicandri said the downtown setting is crucial for the event’s success, and that businesses that suffered this past weekend could still see long-term benefits. She pointed to other popular events Suncoast Charities puts on — including the Powerboat Grand Prix and the Holiday Boat Parade of Lights — as evidence the organization is working in good faith.

“These are all free to the community,” Nicandri said. “Rather than put Thunder under a microscope, I think some people need to step back and look at the whole impact the charity is having with the event.”

City Commissioner Liz Alpert said the event benefited the city, drawing a crowd that wouldn’t necessarily visit otherwise.

“If they can afford these motorcycles and come spend the weekend in Sarasota, they’ve got money they can spend in this economy,” Alpert said.

Both Andersen and Chapman said the economic impact isn’t even. Upscale restaurants and specialty retail stores saw less benefit than less expensive restaurants and bars, they said.

Of the businesses affected by the street closures, 79% of them approved the event. Still, city officials are conducting a more thorough postmortem of the festival and its impacts this year. The Sarasota Police Department is compiling a report regarding the event, and Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norm Gollub is surveying downtown merchants to get their feedback.

This year, the city placed an event coordinator on-site to deal with problems in real time — which Chapman called a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.

“The problem is, when the event is so huge, there’s no managing it,” Chapman said.

Nicandri said the criticism of the event was dispiriting. If the push to relocate Thunder by the Bay is successful, she said Suncoast Charities could stop organizing other community events in response.

“Why should we?” Nicandri said. “If we’re getting booted out from another event in January, why do all this for free?”


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