The town of Longboat Key, which has a long history of expressing concerns about traffic tie-ups in St. Armands Circle, has crafted a letter on behalf of its citizens opposing a new, monthlong winter festival approved by the city of Sarasota for the holiday season.
The proposed event was passed by a 4-1 vote by the Sarasota City Commission during its Oct. 3 meeting.
On Oct. 17, Longboat Key commissioners discussed and ultimately agreed to have Mayor Ken Schneier write a letter to Sarasota Mayor Erik Arroyo and to the Florida Department of Transportation to voice their concerns with the festival and its effects on traffic to and from the island.
FDOT was included in the correspondence due to the event scheduled to take place in the state’s right-of-way.
The festival, proposed by Tom Leonard and Ride Entertainment, is set to span six weeks with a proposed opening date of Nov. 18 and closing date of Jan. 3.
“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 in the letter. “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.
“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 normal procedures and guidelines, could create havoc for those attempting to travel between Sarasota and the barrier islands during such a busy time,” Schneier wrote.
The proposed site map for the event included a synthetic ice rink, a trackless train and a carousel among others, all of which would be located within temporary fencing inside the park. The soon-to-be replaced St. Armands Christmas tree will face Ringling Causeway on the approach to the Circle from the mainland.
St. Armands Circle Association Executive Director Rachel Burns has voiced concerns about the probability of the event’s ability to be executed the way it was proposed as opening day approaches.
Her frustration also centers around events she has been working on since February being forced to be canceled to make way for the winter festival. The events she typically hosts during the season are all free and are focused on benefitting merchants in the Circle.
“People are saying I’m the Grinch and I must have had a horrible childhood and hate Christmas,” she said. “I just want Christmas to be free.”
When proposing the event, Leonard stated access to attractions would come at the cost of $10 per wristband. 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.
She is hopeful that, following a meeting with Leonard, he will allow her to hold some of the events she scheduled months ago. She has already had to cancel over half of the free events the association had planned.
“We’re trying to be creative because I really don’t want to cancel everything,” she said. “In reality, they have that contract for the land, so if they say no, it’s a no.”
Monday afternoon Arroyo sent out a response letter to Schneier.
“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.”
The letter further stated that the town should make note that they are able to contact the city commissioners directly at any time, and they are happy to connect town commissioners with the applicants and potential event host.
Part of the controversy surrounding the winter festival follows a previous attempt by Ride Entertainment to install a permanent carousel in the Circle, which was met with opposition from residents who feared the traffic, safety and noise issues that the installation could cause.