- December 22, 2016
At the May 2 City Commission meeting, Deputy City Manager Marlon Brown shared a piece of news that could give Sarasota residents déjà vu.
The organizers of Thunder by the Bay, a motorcycle festival that’s been held in downtown Sarasota for 18 years, were hearing pushback from Main Street merchants who would be impacted by street closures associated with the event. As a result, all parties involved determined the proposed site was unfeasible.
Now, city staff is evaluating whether Payne Park would be a suitable home for the event — and organizers are waiting on a definitive answer on whether the festival can continue in downtown Sarasota.
It’s a new chapter in the ongoing saga over the location of Thunder by the Bay, but much of the story rings familiar. In January, following the 2016 festival, merchants on lower Main Street spoke out regarding the negative impacts of the event.
That’s why, after months of negotiations with city staff, Thunder organizers accepted a new footprint for the festival — this time, on the east end of Main Street. Lucy Nicandri, the event organizer and executive director of Suncoast Charities for Children, said the early response from merchants there mirrored what they heard on lower Main. As a result, they’re moving onto yet another proposed home for the event.
“We’re disappointed we’re not going to be on Main Street,” Nicandri said. “But we felt there was a lot of pushback that just deterred from how we could plan street closures.”
With Main Street ruled out, Brown disclosed some disagreement between staff and event organizers about the best alternative location. Staff attempted to steer Thunder representatives toward a site north of Fruitville Road on Lemon Avenue in the Rosemary District, but Nicandri was set on Payne Park as a fallback.
Suncoast Charities submitted its application for the use of Payne Park April 25. The city typically responds to park reservation requests within 15 days. On Thursday, city event coordinator Toni Welicki said staff intended to come to a decision relatively quickly.
“Hopefully, we’ll have it all figured out by next week,” Welicki said.
But with next week here, there’s still no clarity on where Thunder by the Bay will be held in 2017. Staff said there is a mutually agreeable hold on the site selection process: The city is still doing its due diligence regarding the Payne Park proposal, and Suncoast Charities is preparing for this summer’s Sarasota Powerboat Grand Prix.
Although Nicandri has been able to go four months without a confirmed site, time will eventually demand a definitive answer. And though Nicandri has agreed to compromise locations after pushing hard to stay on lower Main, there is a finite number of acceptable locations in the city for Suncoast Charities.
“We’re at a point where we cannot further compromise and sacrifice attendance for the event.” — Lucy Nicandri
Right now, the organization is locked in on Payne Park as its top priority. Nicandri said the Rosemary District site came with too many challenges — particularly keeping festivalgoers engaged in a still-redeveloping segment of downtown.
“A park will be much more attractive as far as trying to keep attendees there,” Nicandri said. “If they wanted to go to Main Street (from Rosemary), people would have to cross Fruitville, and we saw that as a safety hazard.”
Brown is leading the city’s consideration of a site for Thunder by the Bay and did not respond to requests for comment.
The site selection process might feel drawn out, but both sides say they’re working toward a solution. However, if Payne Park is ruled out, Nicandri questions whether it’s possible to keep Thunder by the Bay downtown without her organization making unwanted concessions.
“We’re at a point where we cannot further compromise and sacrifice attendance for the event,” Nicandri said. “If we do that, the charity’s going to be the one affected.”