On what can best be described as an ideal chamber of commerce morning, supporters of the Bay Park Conservancy gathered to celebrate the first anniversary of the opening of the first phase of The Bay.
From beneath the shade structure called The Nest, the view across the event lawn toward Sarasota Bay was clear and bright as a handful of speakers addressed the crowd about the collaborative public-private effort that is making possible the transformation of the 53-acre city-owned property into a landmark park.
“The Bay is our signature park for the city and the county,” said County Commissioner Mark Smith. “I'm reminded of Frederick Law Olmsted, who was the landscape architect of Central Park in New York, who said every great city has a great park. We have a great city, and now we've got a great park to go along with it.”
With Phase 1 complete and open, planning is underway for the second phase of The Bay, a $65 million project that will incorporate the 10th Street boat launch property known as Centennial Park — the Canal District — the Cultural District along Tamiami Trail, the Sunset Pier and more landscaped resilient shoreline.
In all, The Bay is expected to cost $200 million to complete in multiple phases over 10 years, equally paid for by public and private sectors. The city and county have created a tax increment financing district on redevelopment of property in the immediate downtown area surrounding The Bay, which dedicates tax dollars on the incremental value of improved property there.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be standing here speaking to you today about this project to take 53 acres of asphalt and concrete and transform it into green space,” said Sarasota Mayor Kyle Battie. “I want to thank everyone who has made this possible and more importantly, the residents and the citizens of the city. We're ranked No. 5 in the nation, No. 2 in the nation, and we don't get there because of the things that we're not doing. We get there because of the things that we are doing. This is a shining example of that.”
Bay Park Conservancy Board of Directors Chair Jennifer Compton reported that in its first year The Bay recorded in excess of 250,000 visits with 97% saying they would return. The goal of The Bay, she said, is to provide a park that is free and open to the public and is sustainable operationally, environmentally and financially.
Plans under development for future phases include revenue-producing features such as waterfront dining options in the Canal District — cash flow that will help sustain the park operations.
“The ideas that we saw earlier this week are extraordinary, features like the addition of beautifully greenscaped walkways connecting culturally significant buildings such as our Municipal Auditorium and Blue Pagoda and a town square to provide another gathering place for the community to come to enjoy farmers markets, fairs and festivals,” Compton said.
Other plans include, “the extension of a continuous resilient shoreline all the way to Centennial Park, better access and amenities like day docks and retail, and delivering on the community's desire for waterfront dining by eventually providing fantastic bayfront venues offering a range of accessibly priced food and beverage options.”
Friday’s event was part of a five-day celebration that included a multicultural festival, live music, guided tours, kayak tours and more.
Philip DiMaria of project consultant Kimley-Horn told the crowd he grew up in New York City playing in Central Park, drawing a comparison to The Bay and its place in the development of the city.
“As a local business employing young professionals and families we understand the vital role that such a project plays in our community’s growth and prosperity,” DiMaria said. “The Bay is not merely a park, It is a testament to our commitment to community development and is a symbol of our investment in the well-being and happiness of the people who call Sarasota home for part of the year are all year. This park has the potential to be a driving force for a stronger sense of community.”
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.