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St. Armands Winter Fest moves toward Friday opening despite quarrel

Organizers tout the six-week event as a boon to the community while traffic and prices concern others.


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  • | 5:00 a.m. November 16, 2022
  • Longboat Key
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Teams of workers nearly outnumbered tourists in St. Armands Circle this week, setting up attractions, decorating and lighting the shopping district’s park for the six-week run of a new festival scheduled to open at 4 p.m. Friday.

Organizers and merchants say the St. Armands Winter Spectacular, which will feature music, a skating rink, a carousel, a trackless train and more, will be good for the community and merchants while offering an alternative to productions at University Town Center and elsewhere.

But it's not all candy canes and sugar plums on the barrier islands.  

St. Armands residents in a recent wide-ranging survey expressed concern about the traffic and crowds the event might bring throughout the holiday season. Longboat Key residents and officials say it’s another example of the city of Sarasota, which approved the festival, ignoring barrier-island concerns.

On Monday, Longboat Key Commissioner BJ Bishop called the event “one of the most dangerous situations that they could have possibly created.” She urged commissioners to contact Sarasota’s new Mayor Kyle Battie and Vice Mayor Liz Alpert in hopes of “saving our citizens from six weeks of absolute traffic mayhem.”

In October, St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Rachel Burns also voiced concerns about the way the event was presented to city leaders. Her frustration centered on events she says she has been working on since February being forced to be canceled to make way for the festival. The events she typically hosts during the season are all free, she said.

Work crews were preparing the park in St. Armands Circle on Monday for Friday's opening of the Winter Festival. (Eric Garwood)
Work crews were preparing the park in St. Armands Circle on Monday for Friday's opening of the Winter Festival. (Eric Garwood)

Last week, Burns sent an email to SACA members and others announcing the cancellation of its 44th annual Holiday Night of Lights, featuring the official lighting of the circle's new 60-foot tree, citing “restrictions” resulting from the festival. The city of Sarasota responded with an announcement that it would still hold an official tree lighting on Dec. 2. The festival will operate as normal. 

“The restrictions placed on the St. Armands Circle Association for Holiday Night have made it impossible for us to present a celebration . . . this year,” Burns wrote, “but we look forward to celebrating Holiday Night of Lights with you in 2023.

The festival organizers responded by saying the plan was to shut down in deference to the lighting ceremony. 

When proposing the event, organizer Tom Leonard, who owns The Shore on Longboat Key and St. Armands Circle, said access to attractions would come at the cost of $10 per wristband, $20 if entry includes skating on the synthetic ice rink. A stage is planned to host free entertainment from local schools and performance groups. No admission fee would be required to enter the festival grounds. 

Traffic to and from Longboat Key through St. Armands Circle, as seen Saturday, Nov. 12, is a concern of town residents. (Eric Garwood)
Traffic to and from Longboat Key through St. Armands Circle, as seen Saturday, Nov. 12, is a concern of town residents. (Eric Garwood)

Leonard said he surveyed all businesses at St. Armands Circle and generated a petition that garnered 97% support before going before the City Commission on Sept. 19 to pitch the idea. On Oct. 3 he made a formal presentation and received commissioners approval for a permit.

“I spent two or three days in the Circle asking a very simple question on my petition, which basically asked do you want Porsches in the Park, or do you want holiday festivities in the park?,” Leonard said. “I'm not trying to take anything away from (Porsche). Our event just couldn’t coexist with theirs. The merchants were excited about the thought that this was a chance to really do something festive and fun and it can bring a lot of people to the Circle.”

Leonard said the petition signatures aren’t necessarily those of business owners — some merchants are chains headquartered elsewhere — but in their stead are those of store management.

“The city has invested in our district with this new Christmas tree and there is absolutely no reason why we should not invest in ourselves,’’ Barbara Bria Pugliese of Just/Because wrote the Observer. “Why would we want our residents and visitors to go to another business district in town?’’ 

Decorating was underway this week in St. Armands Circle. (Eric Garwood)
Decorating was underway this week in St. Armands Circle. (Eric Garwood)

It’s those people potentially coming to the Circle that formed the basis of a letter Longboat Key Mayor Schneier wrote to then-Mayor Erik Arroyo and Florida Department of Transportation. 

“Traffic between the town and Sarasota, especially during the holidays and the winter season, has long been a major concern for Longboat Key and its residents,” Schneier wrote. “The chokepoint at St. Armands Circle is a focal point for that concern even in the absence of special events at those times of year.”

The letter asked both the city and FDOT to take the town’s concerns into account when considering the event and whether or not it is appropriate to hold an event of its size at the Circle. FDOT, acknowledging its lack of jurisdiction, asked for a remaking of parking spaces on the Lido Beach-bound segment of the circle, converting 16 diagonal spaces into eight parallel spaces to cut down on congestion backing up into the circle. 

“While the occasional two-day programs managed by the Merchants’ Association with FDOT oversight have on balance benefited the local communities, the length and intensity of the proposed festival, promoted and organized as it has been outside of the normal procedures and guidelines, could create havoc for those attempting to travel between Sarasota and the barrier islands during such a busy time,” he wrote.

A few days later, Arroyo sent his formal response to the town’s letter.

The St. Armands Circle tree will be officially lit on Dec. 2 in a small ceremony. The annual Holiday Night of Lights ceremony was recently cancelled. (Eric Garwood)
The St. Armands Circle tree will be officially lit on Dec. 2 in a small ceremony. The annual Holiday Night of Lights ceremony was recently cancelled. (Eric Garwood)

“We value your partnership with the City of Sarasota, and we thank you for your letter regarding the commission’s decision to approve the St. Armands Circle Winter Festival,” Arroyo wrote. “All our actions will take into consideration the concerns of the community as well as neighboring jurisdictions such as the Town of Longboat Key. We welcome the opportunity to discuss this matter and bring your concerns into the conversation.”

Similarly concerned is the St. Armands Residents Association. In a recent poll of 147 members on a broad range of topics, 84% responded they were very or extremely concerned about festival traffic. 

In response to concerns over traffic, Leonard and Jeff Koffman of Ride Entertainment, also the CEO of Florida Design Works in Sarasota, said the number of visitors will be controlled by a reservation and wristband system. Reservations may be made in 90-minute blocks, and the six-week duration of the festival, they said, should prevent heavy congestion. The admissions system will allow 20 new people to enter the paid portion of the festival area every 15 minutes.

“Everybody's concerned about the traffic, and we know there's probably going to be an uptick, but the reality is for the 45 days or so that we're open we're going to control the flow with the reservation system,” Leonard said. “The traffic should be mitigated by the length of hours and the days of the event, and the times that we're open. We've strategically scheduled events around what we consider the slowest time, so if you look at our schedule, you won't see any events happening the week after Christmas because we know that those performances aren’t needed to bring people to the circle.”

More than a celebration of the the city’s new 60-foot tree already standing on the east side of the circle, Leonard said the objective of the festival is to bring more visitors to St. Armands rather than losing the business holiday attractions bring to University Town Center and even St. Petersburg.

For now at least, the Winter Spectacular is a one-off.

“Never say never, but we really want to focus on this one event,” Leonard said. “We want peace with the residents. We want peace with the residents and people on Longboat. We obviously care about their considerations, too, because those people are our customers.”

 

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