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What’s in it for neighbors?

Ride Entertainment knows what kind of storms it is about to face in its dream to add commercial amusements at City Island. You know the saying: Know your audience. Same applies: Know your neighbors.

  • Sarasota
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If you’re a glutton for punishment, there is an easy way in Sarasota to fill that urge: Propose to take away park land or convert it to commercial, for-profit use. Then watch for the cyclone of opposition to come out of the neighborhoods and blow the idea into confetti.

Mr. Jeff Koffman, just a word of warning: Hope you know what you’re in for with your idea to convert a portion of City Island into a commercial, mini-amusement park.

Ask Joe McKenna, president and CEO of Sarasota Orchestra. He can tell you about the cyclones that hurled him and the orchestra about when they only suggested that, perhaps, maybe, it might be worth thinking about Payne Park as a site for the orchestra’s new home.

McKenna didn’t say that’s where the orchestra was going to go. It was just floated as an idea. But even that brought hurricane force winds that blew the idea out of town and everyone’s minds.

Or, take the tiny strip of land at Fruitville and Beneva Roads, next to the Circus Trail Nature Park. When Benderson Development floated the idea several years ago it wanted to develop that corner, another high-speed cyclone of neighbors blew that idea to shreds as well. The lot is still scrub and oaks.

So, just saying: Hope you know what you’re in. 

Something to think about: There’s a wise saying about capital. It flows where it is welcome. Seldom is it welcome in Sarasota. But if you want to face the cyclones that will be blowing from St. Armands Key, Lido Key, Lido Shores and Longboat Key, brace yourself; it’s going to cost you — money, time, distress, frustration. This is Sarasota.

Mind you, this newspaper almost always encourages entrepreneurs and aspiring politicians who challenge the status quo to make others’ lives and communities better. But after being here as long as we have, it’s not difficult to predict what is going to transpire when certain projects make it on the City Hall agenda.

A problem to be solved?

To a great extent, we see what Mr. Koffman sees at City Island. It is one of the most priceless spits of sand in the area and far from what could be its highest and best use.

We agree with Sarasota Mayor Liz Alpert on both points she made at Monday’s City Commission meeting. “… I think it is an underutilized park. 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,” she said, “let’s see if we can’t facilitate that.”

Good on Alpert. An open mind.

And yet, we also agree with Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch, probably a first for us: “I don’t know where this impression is coming from that this park needs to be activated,” she said. “I don’t know what problem we are trying to solve … For me, this is a problem that we don’t need to solve. It’s not a problem.”

Indeed, what niche, what unmet desire or need would Koffman’s City Island mini-amusement park fill?

An obvious answer is that he and his associates want to draw more families to spend the day at City Island, coupled with lunch, the beach and perhaps dinner on St. Armands Circle. Every business owner wants more people, more customers.

In his pitch to the city, Koffman said his improvements will elevate the park to a destination, attracting residents and visitors alike to benefit local businesses and the city’s overall image.

A rendering of a portion of Ride Entertainment's concept for Ken Thompson Park on City Island.
Courtesy image

But if Koffman surveyed the barrier island residents and downtown condo residents on his “benefits,” they probably all would say, “We got all of that we want now. We don’t want or need more. Look at all the people moving here now without that.”

You have heard the saying: Know your audience. Likewise, know your neighbors.

The demographics and nature of City Island’s surroundings are not that of young families in minivans. We all see who walks the Circle. It’s not moms and dads with baby strollers and young kids looking to play high-end putt-putt.

What’s more, look at the bigger picture. Does Koffman’s vision fit? Across the water from City Island, the Bay Park is becoming the Central Park of Sarasota, where every demographic goes and peacefully enjoys the idyllic setting to soak in the sun and views; stretch in a free yoga class with 50 fellow Sarasotans; or stroll through the mangrove bayou walkway.

A right turn off City Island across New Pass Bridge takes you to Longboat Key’s Quick Point Park, where parkgoers walk the peaceful, mangrove-laden trails on the quiet shores of Sarasota Bay. 

And then, if you go down U.S. 41, there is the now stunning Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a passive oasis of botany and beauty on the shore of Sarasota Bay. Or go south to Ted Sperling Park on Lido Key, where kayakers paddle quietly through canopies of mangroves.

These are laid-back experiences that capture the vibe of Sarasota and its citizens. They’re not Disney people. Miniature golf is fine for UTC mall.

Alignment of partners

One other consideration: public and private partnership. 

Everyone likes to throw out that overused term to put lipstick on the idea. Koffman’s pitch goes so far as to say his entity, Ride Entertainment, would assume all financial risk; would require no taxpayer contribution; finance a water taxi; and take care of all maintenance and upkeep of the park.

Sounds like a great deal.

But here is what so many people have learned about partnerships: They are always fraught with risks. The partners must be in total alignment on the mission, vision, values, ethics and work and management styles. What’s more, that alignment must be embraced from top to bottom of the organizations. If lower-level employees on either side don’t buy in, they can (and will) undermine the prospects for success, and often kill the enterprise altogether.

Given all of the above, the City Commission has given Koffman and his Ride Entertainment the courtesy of letting them vet the idea via the city’s Parks, Recreation and Environmental Protection Board. You can predict how this is going to go. 

Koffman’s biggest hurdle is going to be the surrounding neighborhoods and providing them a satisfactory answer to this most important question: “What’s in it for us?”

Good luck.



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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