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Big update on deck for 17th Street Park

The county hopes that phased-in updates will be a hit with sports tournaments.

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  • | 7:45 a.m. April 19, 2022
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The Sarasota County Commission approved $5.5 million toward 17th Street Regional Park improvements last week, which is expected to pay for new softball facilities and a dog park to the area in an effort to increase sports tourism.

According to an estimate provided by Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Nicole Rissler, Phase One of the project is expected to be completed in 2024. She said that phase two, which will include additional multipurpose fields and the dog park, would come soon after.

“I do anticipate that it will be some time before the entire regional park gets built out,” Rissler said. “But our hope is that phase two will not be far after we complete phase one. We’re hoping that we have Surtax Four and private dollars invested into phase two.”

Voters will decide on a countywide surtax package in November, which includes money for the county, the school district and municipalities derived from an extra percentage point of sales tax. 

Rissler estimated that phase one of the project will require about $30 million while the entire project would need an estimated $56 million. The funding is expected to come from park impact fees, sale of property at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Tuttle Avenue, the tourist-development tax Capital Improvement Fund and a general obligation bond.

Although the commission appeared to unanimously like the idea, Commissioner Nancy Detert questioned the cost but voted with the other four commissioners after further discussion.

“When you hear a big number like that but divide it by the years it would take, it would be more manageable and in smaller bites,” Detert said. “And we would have new sources of revenue. In fact, a new source of revenue would be largely contributed by tourists.”

Phase one of the project will utilize space formerly occupied by a fire station and a utilities area. The approval of using the space created more than 15 acres for the park project.

The Miss Sarasota Softball Complex, along with other preexisting amenities in the park, will be improved through phase one. Design of the park will be completed by Kimley-Horn, which will evaluate and identify the best course of action for the additional space.

“Because the footprint has slightly changed, one of the first things we will do is look at our concept plan and additional acreage,” Rissler said. “We want to make sure that we have the right pieces in the right places, and that will ultimately come back to you (the commission) later this year.”

While phase one will focus on the eastern side of the park, phase two will improve and add amenities to the western side of the park, which will eventually border a nature park built on the site of Sarasota's Bobby Jones Golf Course. Both pedestrian and vehicular transportation routes will be constructed once the park has been completed. A link to the Legacy Trail is one day envisioned, and city surtax money is earmarked for that purpose, though no specific plan or proposal has been identified.

Commissioner Christian Ziegler expressed excitement during the project presentation but also explained how important the park has been to him and his family already. He also said the park has been impactful for generations of Sarasota women.

“I probably spend five of my seven days each week at the park, part of which is because of the dog park and my new puppy,” Ziegler said. “Also the softball fields where I coach my girls. As Commissioner Maio said, you have generations of women who have gone through that program.”

Ziegler also said that the approval of the project felt special compared to others the commission has approved. He said that because of the Miss Sarasota softball program, he has seen young women’s lives affected in a positive way, and the park improvements will only enhance the experience.

Softball tournaments and other related activities are expected to make a significant economic impact as well. Tournaments would bring in not only softball players but also parents and tourists who would spend on hotels and local businesses.

“There will be economic impact. It will bring a tournament facility, and I bet you there will be a list of tournaments waiting on a list to use this facility,” Ziegler said. “Those people will need hotels and restaurants, then we get into helping local restaurant owners. The economic impact will be unbelievable.”

According to Rissler’s presentation, a design is expected to be in front of commissioners in September. Construction phases for phase one have also been expected to begin this year.

Because failing infrastructure and a shortage of facilities, the county is planning a major overhaul of four recreational and youth sports parks. County leaders hope the new project will help fit into a master plan to improve the area’s destination sports complexes, destination playgrounds and sports tourism.

After an analysis by Atkins North America, improvements are planned for four north county parks: Twin Lakes Park on State Road 72, Fruitville Park, Youth Athletic Complex on 17th Street near Ed Smith Stadium and 17th Street Park, just east of Bobby Jones Golf Course. 

Although all the parks would be updated, the park with the largest upgrade would be 17th Street, where adjacent parcels would be added to the create more than 200 acres of athletic and leisure complex. 

Costs for the four-park upgrade are estimated at $117 million.

Sarasota County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources was partially responsible for the recent extensions of Legacy Trail. Ziegler joked that if the department’s work on the park is anything like the work toward Legacy Trail, construction and completion could come sooner than expected.

“Literally hundreds of girls every season, from tee-ball all the way up, come to this park and have their lives impacted in a positive way,” Ziegler said. “It gives them an outlet to set their goals and accomplish them. For us, you guys do a great job maintaining the fields out there.”

“It’s one thing to look at this on paper and another to see pages of people’s stories of how it’s changed their lives,” Ziegler continued. “It will benefit us, our local community and our image as a whole in Sarasota.”