Rapidly rising materials prices and cost overruns have delayed the construction of a new splash pad at and playground upgrades at Bayfront Park, but the project has now received the go-ahead from Sarasota city commissioners.
During a recent meeting of the Sarasota City Commission, the $2.9 million project, which includes adjacent playground upgrades, was unanimously approved — Commissioner Hagen Brody was absent. A shade structure and several other features were cut from the project because of budget constraints.
The new water feature, which will replace the 27-year-old splash pad that has been frequently shuttered over the past two years, is the centerpiece of the overall playground project that will have a shipwreck theme.
The project will be paid for by American Rescue Plan Act funds for non-recurring projects within the city. The commission’s approval included not just the playground and splash pad, but other projects in a $4.4 million spending package, all receiving ARPA grant funding.
The budget amendment includes $5.06 million transfer of ARPA monies to the general fund. In addition to Bayfront Park and splash pad improvements, the funds are appropriated for a mobile command center, five solid waste replacement vehicles, the Bobby Jones Golf Course and Nature Park project, and Serena Street pedestrian connections.
“As you know, because of inflationary costs, materials are going up, so we're asking permission to set aside some of that traunch (one in a series of payments) so we can be able to move forward with the splash pad and the playground that has been closed now for a number of months,” said City Manager Marlon Brown. “We’d like to see that reopened and this is the opportunity to do that.”
Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch express dismay at the cost of the splash pad and park project, asking if an immediate decision was necessary.
Brown agreed about the price, but cited it as evidence of the urgency to get the project funded and started.
“The construction costs are going up, so if it's not the next meeting, if it's a future meeting, then I don't know what it will do in terms of the inflationary costs,” he said. “Time is of the essence. We've heard from a lot of the contractors that there's no telling what the cost would be a week from now, two weeks from now or a month from now.”
From below the ground up
Sarasota Park and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle told commissioners the winning bid from Jon F. Swift Construction of Sarasota for the project came in at $4 million. Cutting the shade structure and other features eventually brought the price down to $2.9 million, one that could rise or require more cuts if not locked in immediately.
If even at $2.9 million the price still seems steep, Fogle explained the infrastructure of the splash pad — plumbing, pumps, filtration, drains, etc. — is antiquated, failing and needs to be demolished. In addition, the splash pad is custom designed and not something pulled from the shelf of your local splash pad store.
“You're going to get a really unique, special project, Fogle said. “We had community meetings. We got their input. This suits the needs of our citizens … so this is why we're coming to you today to get your support for this. I think it's going to be one of the most impactful amenities that we have. Payne Park playground is wildly popular. I think this will be even more popular.”
The unique nature of the splash pad and playground design is perhaps exceeded only by its setting, in the middle of Bayfront Park with views of the marina on one side and Sarasota Bay on the other.
Such a first-class location, said John F. Swift Construction President Jason Swift, requires a facility comparable quality.
“When we were tasked to do this project, it was brought to us to be a world-class partner, and that's what we gave at the $4 million price,” Swift said. “We had to take some things back and live within the budget, and I think the big problem we have is if we wait for this decision, contractors and materials are not holding their prices. We get price increases on a weekly basis. I'd hate to see us not move forward and then the price goes up again and we can't afford to do it.”
The splash pad is designed with durability in mind. To help mitigate future degradation, its foundation will be glass fiber reinforced concrete, meaning there is no steel used that will decay over time. That adds to the cost, but it also doubles or triples the longevity and reduces future maintenance expense.
“We hear comments all the time about why isn't the splash pad working. This is the time of year to have the splash pad,” Ahern-Koch said. “We’ve talked about all the money that we continually put into it, but at a certain point in time when your infrastructure starts to age, you’ve got to pull the trigger and say it's time to get new infrastructure because it's failing.”
A shady deal?
Although portions of the playground area of Bayfront Park near O’Leary’s Tiki Bar & Grill is naturally shaded with abundant trees, the splash pad footprint is largely open to the elements. The shade features that were removed from the plan represents a significant portion of the cost cutting — approximately $250,000.
Although Mayor Erik Arroyo suggested the shade — as well as all the other items cut — could be brought back at a later time, commissioners Ahern-Koch and Liz Alpert lamented losing the shade, agreeing that much of the year the lack of shade may be a deterrent.
“I think it's an important project that shouldn't continue to be delayed and I'm sorry we had to eliminate shade structure,” Alpert said. ”That would be very important, especially for parents who sit there.”
Before commissioners approved the Bayfront Park and other projects, Brown said he’d scour the budget for money to pay for the shade installation.
"I'm hearing that the shade structure is important,” he said. “If I can get direction from the Commission to add it to the project, if I'm able to find the money for it. I'll do that.”