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Thunder by the Bay leaves city for Lakewood Ranch

Organizers hope a home further from the bay will eliminate the mounting issues for the motorcycle festival.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. September 22, 2016
Thunder by the Bay has had a presence in downtown Sarasota since 1999, but the event will move out of the city as event organizers respond to a growing collection of concerned residents, businesses and officials.
Thunder by the Bay has had a presence in downtown Sarasota since 1999, but the event will move out of the city as event organizers respond to a growing collection of concerned residents, businesses and officials.
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The 2017 Thunder by the Bay motorcycle festival will be held a little farther away from the body of water it’s named after.

On Monday, the Suncoast Charities for Children board of directors voted to relocate the bulk of the event from downtown Sarasota to Lakewood Ranch. The festival, scheduled for Jan. 5-8, will primarily take place at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch.

Portions of the festival will be held in other parts of the region, as well. A Friday night block party will relocate from Hillview Street to Gulf Gate Village, just south of Stickney Point Road.

This year’s Thunder by the Bay drew negative feedback from downtown Sarasota residents and merchants. After officials started to discuss potential changes to the city’s special events regulations, festival organizers began searching for a new venue.

Although city staff and event organizers reached an agreement on the potential use of Payne Park as a new home for Thunder by the Bay, some neighboring residents voiced concerns about the impact of the festival. Those concerns contributed to the decision to relocate, according to Festival Director Lucy Nicandri.

“Thunder by the Bay, with an established history of 19 years — we don’t want to keep changing locations every year,” Nicandri said.

Moving Out

Nicandri is optimistic about the event’s future in Lakewood Ranch. But there’s a reason the event has been held downtown since 1999, why organizers sought to retain a presence on Main Street, and why Payne Park remained under consideration through the summer.

“Is it bittersweet to not have it in downtown?” Nicandri said. “Absolutely.”

Earlier this year, Nicandri said her goal was to secure a venue downtown if possible. Ultimately, Suncoast Charities determined it wasn’t. That decision was partially attributed to the city’s still-evolving special events regulations and the prospect of increased fees if the festival relocated to Payne Park.

City staff is drafting a proposed ordinance that would create heightened restrictions on events that close at least five city blocks — or completely prohibit events of that scale. Only one city event was large enough to meet that standard: Thunder by the Bay.

A vocal contingent is arguing city officials chased off an event that injected activity into the heart of the city. John Saputo, president of event sponsor Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, encouraged Nicandri to explore the move to Lakewood Ranch.

“Every year, despite the fact that this is one of the largest, most influential charities in Manatee and Sarasota County, it became harder and harder for the charity and sponsors to deal with the city of Sarasota,” Saputo said.

But City Commissioner Susan Chapman said the criticism of Thunder by the Bay was rooted in concerns from businesses and residents.

This year, Downtown Economic Development Coordinator Norm Gollub surveyed more than 100 businesses impacted by the festival’s street closures. About 62% of the responses said Thunder by the Bay had a negative impact on business that weekend.

“According to the actual research done by the economic development director, it is not an aid to business,” Chapman said. “I am more supportive of year-round businesses.”

Although Chapman argued merchants are heavily reliant on doing business in-season, Visit Sarasota County President Virginia Haley said the first weeks of the new year are one of the slowest periods downtown.

For tourists, the prospect of attending a large event can be a major attraction. Haley said the draw is even greater for events attended by a significant number of local residents. She encouraged city officials to be wary of policy changes that would ward away a diverse mix of special events.

“Our visitors are the people who want to be in a real, authentic place, where you clearly see it’s a diverse community,” Haley said. “I hope we don’t become a restrictive, narrow community.”

The event isn’t losing all ties to the city. A Saturday morning motorcycle ride will begin at Sarasota Ford and end at the Premier Sports Campus. Considering the proximity of Lakewood Ranch, Haley and Saputo hoped the event would still have a positive impact on Sarasota.

“I think we’re going to get the best of both worlds,” Saputo said. “I think Lakewood Ranch is going to get a tremendous amount of business. Then, I think the motorcyclists will head to downtown Sarasota for an evening of fun.”

Still hoping to grow headed into the event’s 19th year, Nicandri said her conversations with Lakewood Ranch developer Schroder-Manatee Ranch gave her confidence Thunder by the Bay could thrive even as it said farewell to the city of Sarasota.

“(SMR CEO and President) Rex (Jensen) and their team said, ‘We’d love to have you, and how can we make this work?’” Nicandri said. “As an events planner, that’s very refreshing.”


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