Clarification: The Sarasota City Commission awarded to grant for about $286,000 to the St. Armands Circle Association for the purchase of a new Christmas tree. The organization, along with the St. Armands Business Improvement District, the St. Armands Residents Association and the Lido Residents Association supported the grant request, said Rachel Burns, executive director for the St. Armands Circle Association. A story in the Aug. 4 edition of the Sarasota Observer was unclear.
For the past two decades, the holiday-tree lighting at St. Armands Circle has been synonymous with Sarasota and the season. That tradition was in danger of missing 2022, and perhaps beyond, as the 20-year-old yuletide faux fir has reached obsolescence to the extent that contractors will no longer assemble it.
On Monday, leaders of the St. Armands Circle Business Improvement District appealed to the Sarasota City Commission for a one-time grant of $286,875 to purchase a new tree, one that BID board of directors member Tom Leonard told commissioners will continue the tradition as the city’s official tree.
With the launch of the holiday season 90 days away, Leonard said the ask was urgent because the tree must be ordered within days to be delivered in time to be erected on Nov. 1.
“We found out a few months ago that because of disrepair, it's just no longer viable,” Leonard said. “After 20 years of use, (the tree) has reached the end of its lifespan to the point that no contractor will touch the setup of the holiday decor any longer. Much like any other capital improvement, nothing lasts forever. This request to fund a holiday tree isn't just any tree. This is a city tree.”
Following a brief discussion, commissioners approved the capital expenditure by a 4-1 vote — with Mayor Erik Arroyo opposed — which will require a fund balance transfer from the current fiscal year’s budget. The vote came one week after Arroyo expressed concerns about deficit spending in the proposed fiscal year 2023 budget, which will require a $3.2 million transfer from the city’s fund balance. The grant will be received by the St. Armands Circle Association, which works in partnership with the BID.
The new St. Armands tree will be 60 feet tall, Leonard calling it the largest tree on the Gulf Coast adorned with so many LEDs that it will be visible while crossing the Ringling Bridge, if not from downtown.
“This tree would draw visitors from around our coast from Tampa to Naples and local areas like Lakewood Ranch and UTC,” Leonard pitched. "This capital investment will generate for the city huge payback and positive free social media and print marketing.”
As it has for the past two decades, SACA, with support from the BID, will pay for the assembly, removal and storage of the holiday decor, a cost of about $30,000 a year. St. Armands BID Executive Director Rachel Burns told commissioners the new tree should have a lifespan of 20 to 40 years.
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch wondered aloud if the tree purchase sets a precedent for similar future requests, specifically from the Downtown Improvement District.
“Don’t be surprised if the DID comes begging,” said City Manager Marlon Brown.