- February 8, 2023
St. Armands Circle is getting a new 60-foot holiday tree this year, and now it will have a six-week winter festival to accompany it. During its Oct. 3 meeting, the Sarasota City Commission approved by a 4-1 vote authorizing the city staff to approve a special-use permit to Tom Leonard and Ride Entertainment to hold the festival in the five-acre park inside the circle.
Citing the contentious nature surrounding the request, Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch opposed the motion to approve made by Hagen Brody. The controversy surrounds what St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Rachel Burns said was a lack of communication between Leonard and her organization, and the cancellation of at least one annual event to accommodate the new festival.
The prospect of the festival first came before the commission at its Sept. 19 meeting during the pubic comments portion, when Leonard and Burns spoke back-to-back on the matter. Leonard, chairman of the St. Armands Business Improvement District Board of Directors, emphasized he was not speaking on behalf of the board. Burns, whose organization is comprised of the merchants at the Circle, said she was left out of the conversation, that Leonard was attempting to circumvent procedures for an event permit and was meeting with organizers of events under her purview to postpone or cancel them.
Ironically, the two appeared before the commission on Aug. 1 to request a $286,000 grant to replace the 20-year-old St. Armands tree. Leonard said the festival is his effort to deliver on what commissioners at the time expressed as a desire to expand holiday activities there beyond the traditional tree-lighting.
Part of the controversy stems from a previous attempt by Ride Entertainment to install a permanent carousel in the circle, which met with opposition.
Leonard provided details during Monday’s meeting, including a site map of proposed attractions that include a synthetic ice skating rink, a trackless train, a carousel and more, all located within temporary fencing inside the park. The new tree will face Ringling Causeway on the approach to the circle from the mainland.
The fencing, Leonard said, is not to deny access but to provide security while festival activities are under way. At a cost of $10, a wristband will provide access to all the attractions. A stage will host free entertainment from local schools and performance groups. No admission fee is required to enter the festival grounds.
St. Armands Residents Association President Chris Goglia told commissioners a weeks-long event that limits access to the space within the circle is a right-of-way violation along a state road.
“Based on the feedback that we've gotten from our public works department, it is right of way, but they look at it as sort of like a median in the middle of a roadway where there's green space,” said City Manager Marlon Brown. “And so we've always utilized that circle as sort of a median, so it's green space and we do designate it as a park.”
City Attorney Robert Fournier said in his opinion right of way applies to vehicular traffic, which will not be impeded, and therefore consideration of the festival does not require a public hearing. Additionally, access to the park is not restricted because paid admission only applies to the rides.
“I think (you can) just decide that the ordinance applies, but it only applies when there's actual public right away that's being used as such for vehicular traffic and it has to be closed,” Fournier said. “This will not require the closure of any right of way over which the public is traveling.”
Burns said the St. Armands Circle Association isn’t necessarily opposed to the festival, but it objects to having been excluded from planning and prior to Monday’s meeting had received no details of the proposal. She also took exception to Leonard meeting with the organizer of one of her group’s regular events, Porsches at the Park, requesting it be relocated, postponed or canceled to accommodate the festival.
“I've asked multiple times in emails to Mr. Brown and Mr. Fournier for more information. Since Aug. 26, I’ve received no information. I've just heard about things going on behind the scenes where my events are attempting to be canceled,” she said. “We're not against this and nor have I ever tried to stop an expanded program. I just do not believe that we're setting the right precedent by bulldozing over something. I would like you to direct city staff to have that meeting with us so we can try to work on something together that works for everybody.”
Leonard said he doesn’t necessarily envision the festival as an annual event and, for the time being, said it’s about highlighting what commissioners called a tree for the city, not just St. Armands.