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As St. Armands BID dissolves, funding uncertain for trolley, holiday tree

All approved purchases of goods and services must be delivered by the business improvement district's Sept. 30 sunset.

St. Armands Circle has enjoyed an enhanced level of service via revenues raised from the special tax district.
St. Armands Circle has enjoyed an enhanced level of service via revenues raised from the special tax district.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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During the past two decades, St. Armands Circle has experienced an enhanced level of service that has contributed to maintaining its status as one of the city’s top destinations for visitors and residents alike.

With the failure to renew the St. Armands Business Improvement District by a vote of the commercial property owners there, just how well maintained the landscape and how well funded special events and marketing of the circle will be is uncertain. What is certain, though, is that it likely won’t be anywhere near the level merchants, visitors and residents have enjoyed since 2003.

Just two days after the City Commission received the report of the impending sunset of the St. Armands BID on Sept. 30, 2023, the  board of directors held its last meeting to discuss final spending plans, and what may happen with any surplus funds remaining in the BID’s accounts once it is dissolved.

That money, nearly $700,000 in total and which includes approximately $479,000 for capital improvements, will not be used elsewhere in the city because it belongs to the BID via special tax district overlay district. Those paying into the fund for the past 20 years, though, will have no say over how it is spent there. That will be up to City Commission going forward.

Lush landscaping has been a benefit of St. Armands Circle as a result of being a business improvement district. Pruning, mulching and planting will revert to standard city service frequency.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

After Sept. 30, property owners will have to directly lobby staff and commissioners for any benefits above and beyond standard city services and capital spending. 

“That's what we're going to have to now. We're gonna have to get together as property owners and go to the city and push for these things,” said BID Board of Directors Chairman Tom Leonard. “They will probably look at us and say, ‘Well, why did you dissolve yourself if you wanted this so bad, and why didn't you want to contribute to it?’ 

“We need to figure out a way so we can show the city that we can generate revenue outside of the BID to help support these enhanced services and our streetscape. I think that we all work together with the great business minds that we all have here. I think we can continue to hopefully have input with the commission. It’s not always easy, but it can happen.”

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During Wednesday’s meeting in which the three remaining board members occasionally showed some frustration with the impending dissolution, BID Business Manager Julie Ryan said any spending decisions made must not only be invoiced and paid for by Sept. 30, but all goods and services must be delivered by that date. Any ongoing services — such as marketing — may continue past that date providing they had been approved and initiated before the deadline.

Board member Casey Gonzmart appeared particularly frustrated at the outcome of the BID renewal vote and the limits placed on all that must be concluded by Sept. 30. He rejected any seasonal flower plantings and other landscape plans — particularly since enhanced irrigation paid for by the BID will revert to the city’s less frequent schedule.

Gonzmart wanted every dollar possible to go into the capital improvement fund to help pay for a future complete streets or streetscape project. Ryan advised that funds for operations and capital improvements cannot be commingled.

“We have to focus on streetscape. That's something we've all discussed. It's something that we all desire, and nobody in this room doesn't like it,” said Gonzmart, who owns the Columbia and Cha Cha Coconuts restaurants and the buildings they occupy. “We have to find a way to fund it. We have to find a way to make it a quality project. It’s going to take years, but I'm here for the long term. John Ringling came here in ’29. I came here in ’59 and my son is 40 years old, so we will fight and we will do what we can to work in tandem with the city to protect the oldest district in the city of Sarasota.”

St. Armands BID vs. City service levels
TaskLocationCity StandardBID Standard
MulchingSidewalk area, tree beds and plantersAnnuallyWeekly
MulchingCircle park and mediansAnnuallyAs needed
Palm tree trimmingCircle park and mediansAnnuallyNone
PruningSidewalk area, tree beds and planters
Plantings, replantingsCircle park and mediansAnnuallyAdditional 2-4 times per year
Pressure cleaningSidewalks and Circle ParkTwice annuallyAdditional 2-4 times per year
Pressure cleaningAlleysNone2-4 times per year
Trash removalAll green receptaclesDailyNone
Trash removalSidewalk/storefront areaNoneWeekly
Holiday decorCircle Park and mediansNoneAnnually

The board approved a handful of print, digital and video marketing programs that will continue for three to four months beyond dissolution, along with one last sidewalk cleaning beyond the city’s twice-annual standard, and an alley cleaning, which the city does not provide.

After several approved landscaping, cleaning and marketing projects are completed, the BID will turn over to the city an estimated approximately $44,000 to be held in escrow. That money can be spent only within the BID footprint, but at the City Commission’s discretion.

With the dissolution of the BID, its annual $50,000 contribution to operate the Bay Runner free trolley service also ends, and the city will have to find another source to supplement funding. 

Once the St. Armands BID expires on Sept. 30, it will no longer enjoy a higher level of maintenance beyond the city standards.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

A funding source for this year’s installation of the holiday tree in Circle Park, which was purchased by the BID and the St. Armands Circle Association last year thanks to a $286,000 city grant, will also have to be found. That’s priced at $37,840.55, which cannot be funded by BID because it would not be erected and decorated by Sept. 30, and because it did not receive a formal application from the Circle Association, which owns the tree and is responsible for its storage.

A nearly half-century old Sarasota tradition, the cost to install the tree and hold the annual Holiday Night of Lights tree lighting ceremony will be another matter for the city to consider.

“if we want to see something like Parks and Rec do something, we should lobby them after our board dissolves to come up with a design, then we lobby the commission, and that's what we're going to have to do now,” Leonard said. “We’re going to have to join together as property owners and merchants and say to the city, ‘There’s money in a piggy bank. We'd like to see this money spent this way.’”



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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