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St. Armands leaders in opposition over winter festival request

The Business Improvement District chair asked the city to consider support of a holiday festival in St. Armands Circle. The Merchants Association head charges violation of protocols.

The St. Armands Business Improvement District is seeking city support and permitting of a holiday season festival in the park at St. Armands Circle. (Photo by Andrew Warfield)
The St. Armands Business Improvement District is seeking city support and permitting of a holiday season festival in the park at St. Armands Circle. (Photo by Andrew Warfield)
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Now that St. Armands Circle is getting a new 60-foot tree for the holidays, the Circle’s Business Improvement District leadership wants to take the season's celebration to the next level with a companion festival.

Tom Leonard, the St. Armands BID chair, appeared before Sarasota City Commission on Monday seeking support for a winter holiday festival that would include children’s rides, such as a carousel and a train, a skating rink, and a stage for festivities. The BID’s idea has sparked opposition from a traditional ally, the St. Armands Merchants Association.

The discussion wasn’t on the agenda, so Leonard made his first official pitch to commissioners during the public comments portion of the meeting. He was followed immediately by Merchants Association Executive Director Rachel Burns in opposition to Leonard’s approach, if not the festival itself.

Leonard is tapping into a previous relationship with an amusements company for the festival, and he requested a spot on a future City Commission agenda to state their case.

“I reached out to Ride Entertainment to help me make this reality. They jumped on the opportunity as they believe, as I do, that we need to celebrate this new tree in a festive way for the merchants, the city and its residents,” Leonard said. “Why do we have to go to UTC to ice skate or St. Pete to see all the festivities when we have all this great talent in our city?”

Ride Entertainment had previously pitched to the city a proposal for a permanent carousel at St. Armands, which was met with mixed reviews from the dais and opposition from the St. Armands Residents Association.

Leonard said the festival attractions would not a permanent installation. The rides and the stage would be in use from Nov. 18 — the target tree-lighting event date — through New Year’s Day.

“Now to displace those rumors,” Leonard said. “This is not an attempt to put a carousel in St. Armands permanently. The stage is not for a heavy metal band. It’s a place for local schools, dance groups and other holiday-themed groups to perform in our park during the holidays.”

Burns told commissioners that while the Merchants Association, an organization separate from the BID, doesn't necessarily object to the idea of a festival, it does object to Leonard's proposed path toward city consideration.

On Aug. 1, Leonard and Burns appeared together before the commissioners to lobby for a 60-foot, $286,000 replacement of the 20-year-old tree that is the centerpiece of St. Armands holiday festivities. The grant request of the city, which was approved, was also supported bu the St. Armands Residents Association and the Lido Residents Association. As it has in the past, the Merchants Association will own, store and maintain the tree. 

“The city of Sarasota has adopted ordinances and a clear protocol is in place for special events,” Burns said. “Mr. Leonard is not following that. His request is a clear violation of the special events ordinance on St. Armands and should require the support of the LMR (Landlords, Merchants and Residents Association).”

The timing of the holiday festival would require either  rescheduling or relocation of the annual Porsches in the Park, another sticking point for Burns who told commissioners that it would set a troubling precedent for legacy events in St. Armands and elsewhere in the city.

“Mr. Leonard will also be asking for, and has asked for in-kind services, which are free services, to be provided for a for-profit company that will be charging the public to use these rides,” Burns said. "If you approve this, I would assume that the city is prepared to provide equitable treatment not only for us as a 501(c)(6), but all organizations that produce special events in the city.”

Monday’s meeting isn’t the first public contentious exchange between Leonard and Burns, who took over Merchants Association leadership earlier this summer upon the retirement of long-time executive director Diana Corrigan. During the August St. Armands BID meeting, they sparred over timing and procedures for the installation and lighting ceremony of the new tree. 

Because the discussion was not an issue that was publicly noticed ahead of time, no votes were taken on the matter. 



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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