- March 9, 2022
Tossing a few shovelfuls of infield clay in front of photographers on Friday just wasn’t enough for county officials at 17th Street Park as they ceremonially launched a comprehensive remake of the North Sarasota recreation site.
Preceding their traditional smile-for-the-camera moment was at least a symbolic out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new moment as a piece of heavy equipment took several bites out of the Miss Sarasota softball complex concession stand.
“We’ll finish that up later,’’ County Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Nicole Rissler joked, as pieces of cracked and crumpled roof tumbled to the ground.
What’s planned to come next, among other things, is a new girls softball complex in the footprint of the Miss Sarasota complex with eight new fields, each with an outfield fence set to 220 feet, a standard for collegiate, professional and youth tournament play. One will serve as a stadium field.
Nearby, on land that isn’t now part of the park, four artificial turf multi-purpose fields are planned for such sports as soccer, lacrosse, rugby, football and more. Renderings show two soccer pitches on each of the four fields.
The initial improvements are the first phase at the first park to undergo similar broad renovations countywide, designed to not only host local and community youth and adult sports but also regional tournaments that can attract overnight participants to area hotels and restaurants.
In 2022, County Commissioners set aside $5.5 million for the first phase, which includes the softball fields and the multi-purpose fields. In October, County Commissioners authorized a potential add-on of three adult-league softball fields to the north, with the idea that the existing fields will one day have to make way for additional green space features on the western end of the park, which borders the city of Sarasota’s Bobby Jones Golf Course and nature park project. The county and the city are working to one day link the two amenities, and county park planners envision a pathway through 17th Street Park that could link with a Legacy Trail extension through Bobby Jones.
From there, a link Nathan Benderson Park is possible, as is a crossover of Interstate 75 into Lakewood Ranch,
“So that was phase one going into last week when we presented that to the board last week, they said, ‘This is fantastic, but Nicole, we want to do more,’’’ Rissler said. “And so what they're asking us to do, we're not committed yet, we're gonna price it, the adult fields.’’
The expansion of the county’s parks with an eye toward sports tourism was supported by County Commission consistently with 5-0 votes, but outgoing Commissioners Christian Ziegler and Al Maio were often the proposal’s biggest champions.
“We will have tournaments that will have thousands of kids that are involved in them over the course of three days, four days, hundreds of hotel rooms,’’ Ziegler said. “You'll have people going to restaurants here locally. You'll have people seeing Sarasota for the first time and then ending up moving here. I think that's what this park will help do. It brings a sense of community here.’’
Parks in the south and central portions of Sarasota County also are in line for similar upgrades, but 17th Street Park is the first.
Commissioner Ron Cutsinger, the vice chair who will likely be elevated to chair when Maio leaves the board after next week’s election, joked that Maio and Ziegler pushed for the additional features, then left him to figure out how to pay for it.
The complete buildout of the remade park could reach more than $45 million, which would be financed through park impact fees, the countywide 1 penny surtax, Tourist Development Tax revenue and proceeds of the sale of a once-county owned recreation facility.
“One of the first things that Commissioner Maio did was he made this statement to staff,” Cutsinger said. “And you remember this, he always said: ‘Look, you bring us the vision. You bring us the plans. Don't worry about the money. We'll take care of the money. That's our problem. That's not your problem.’’’
Rissler said the project will likely take until fall of 2024 to complete. Over that time, while demolition and construction are underway, the alternate venues for youth softball will be found at other county parks.
"Remember that it was not an easy lift,'' Maio said. "Parcels had to be assembled. County departments had to surrender parcels so that Nicole and her team could aggregate a big enough piece.