Allow a private entity to formally submit a proposal for evaluation to add attractions to a waterfront city park or wait three years to begin the community input process as part of the city’s park master plan?
That was the conundrum before the Sarasota City Commission on Monday after Jeff Koffman of Ride Entertainment presented a conceptual plan for a public-private partnership to rehabilitate Ken Thompson Park on City Island.
The idea prompted a brief discussion among commissioners clearly divided on the issue, their positions hardening during a more spirited debate during the comments portion at the end of the day’s agenda.
Koffman presented a plan to activate the park, positing that it would bring no more traffic to the bottleneck between downtown and St. Armands and Longboat keys because of the loss of 300,000 visitors per year to the adjacent Mote Marine Aquarium, which will move to Benderson Park by the end of the year.
The addition of an included water taxi service across Sarasota Bay as part of the proposal, he said, may even reduce the volume of vehicles across the Ringling Bridge and through St. Armands, and replace at least some of the business lost by local shops and restaurants with the departure of the aquarium.
As reported last week by the Observer, Koffman, a year-round resident of Golden Gate Point, proposed a public-private partnership concept that he said maintains 97% of the 25-acre park’s green space, adds a small waterfront restaurant, a splash pad, topiary gardens and possibly an Aerobar observation tower — all built around a centerpiece of the growing sport of park golf. All the improvements and ongoing maintenance would come at private expense while the city would retain ownership of the park.
“We would like to go to city staff and the Parks Department and vet these ideas in a public-private partnership that enables projects to be accelerated,” Koffman told commissioners. “We would retain all the financial risks. This will make the park more attractive and engaging for people of all ages.”
The presentation set off a debate Koffman has heard before.
“The whole community needs to be involved because we need to see it in writing,” said Commissioner Erik Arroyo, who requested the discussion be placed on the agenda. “We need to see a study showing that this will actually reduce traffic and it will alleviate a problem that is felt by a lot of the individuals in that area.”
Arroyo said if the proposal results in better maintenance of and activates Ken Thompson Park — and relieves the city's financial obligation to do so — it is worth exploring, if not by staff then, as Mayor Liz Alpert proposed, by the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection (PREP) Board.
Commissioner Debbie Trice called that an unnecessary exercise.
“The city without a for-profit entity will be improving the parks, including Ken Thompson Park,” Trice said. “If we want more people to go to Ken Thompson Park, we might want to consider adding a stop for the Bay Runner trolley. Your slide on the benefits to the city, those were not benefits to the city. Those were benefits to your organization that peripherally might be good for the city, but I didn't see anything in this proposal that would benefit the city and I am so opposed to moving forward.”
Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said any improvement to a public park should be completely free and accessible to the public. Koffman confirmed there would be a cost to play the park golf course, to dine at the restaurant and to ride the water taxi.
She also said she disagrees that the park needs further activation beyond its current passive use.
“I don't know where this impression coming from that this park needs to be activated,” she said. “I don't know what problem we are trying to solve. From my point of view, it does not need to be activated. It's not a safety hazard. It's free, open and accessible to the public. I don't know why we would need to entertain this. For me, this is a problem that we don't need to solve. It's not a problem.”
Whether a privately initiated proposal should occupy the time of the PREP Board, and by extension some city staff time, sparked the late-meeting debate with Ahearn-Koch and Trice, both vehemently opposed, and Alpert and Arroyo, who supported allowing the public to weigh in. With Commissioner Kyle Battie backing up Alpert and Arroyo, the vote to send it to the PREP Board was eventually approved along those lines.
The vote followed a sometimes heated, workshop-style back-and-forth as both sides hardened their positions.
“All those emails that I got all last week and over the weekend, my attitude at that time is I wasted too much time on this Ken Thompson Park presentation already and I am so opposed to what they presented," Trice said. "If we tossed it in the round file, I would be very happy,” Trice said.
Ahearn-Koch said surveys regarding the park clearly indicate residents are requesting improvements that suggest a more passive park experience when improvements are eventually made by the city.
”I’m not saying that I don't want to do anything to enhance the park because clearly when the people weighed in they said they want more shade, fishing facilities, picnic benches, benches in general, nature trails and more trees,” Ahearn-Koch said. “Those are the kinds of things they asked for. I don't know why we as a city couldn't provide that.”
Trice said the city doesn’t need Ride Entertainment’s proposed water taxi because a coalition of local government entities are developing plans, as confirmed by Deputy City Manager Pat Robinson.
After attempting to go it alone for years, Robinson said, the city is working with Sarasota County and the town of Longboat Key for development of a water taxi service. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen in the next six months, but we are continuing to work through that,” he said.
As both sides debated over whether to involve the PREP Board, Alpert said she received an email from Chairman Leo Fitzgerald, who wrote the board is available to evaluate the Ride Entertainment proposal.
Robinson, meanwhile, said he heard from Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle, reminding him that Ken Thompson Park is included in the Parks and Recreation Master Plan and that community input and design for improvements there is “two to three years out,” adding, “There are plans that are a little bit further out than six months from now, but relative to the master plan is to address some of the community conversation that already took place.”
Trice and Ahearn-Koch maintained their opposition to put the Ride Entertainment concept ahead of that discussion.
“This is public space, and if they're going to provide all of these things, they are going to want to make money,” Ahearn-Koch said. “They're not doing this out of the goodness of their heart. They are going to want to make their investment back and make a profit.”
Alpert and Arroyo had no objection to that, provided a final plan emerges more quickly — one that is acceptable to the community, renovates the park, maintains the green space and offers transportation options at private expense.
“It’s a proposal that could be tweaked, but I don't think we should turn it down out of hand because I think it is an underutilized park,” Alpert said. “It doesn't even look like a park. It just looks like a big, empty lot. Is that the city's fault? Maybe it is. But if we have somebody who is coming in and offering to spend the money to do this, let's see if we can't facilitate that.”
There's currently no timeline set for when the PREP Board would take up the matter for consideration.
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.