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Residents speak out against Ken Thompson Park proposal

Although the Ride Entertainment plan is not on its meeting agenda, several speakers implored the Parks Board to recommend against the proposal to activate the City Island park.

A rendering of a portion of Ride Entertainment's concept for Ken Thompson Park on City Island.
A rendering of a portion of Ride Entertainment's concept for Ken Thompson Park on City Island.
Courtesy image
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A proposed public-private partnership with the city to activate Ken Thompson Park has not yet had a formal hearing, but several residents had plenty to say about it during Thursday’s Parks Recreation and Environmental Preservation Board meeting.

In its first meeting since Ride Entertainment introduced the idea to the City Commission as a point of discussion on Feb. 5, the matter was removed from the PREP Board’s agenda. That didn’t stop the majority of the more than 20 public commenters from sharing their opinions on the idea.

Sarasota resident and principal of Ride Entertainment Jeff Koffman has proposed a plan to renovate the park’s green space and add some revenue-generating attractions such as a small restaurant, an observation tower ride called Aerobar and a nine-hole “park golf” course, among others. 

Koffman said the park’s activation will help replace the 300,000 annual Mote Marine aquarium visitors after that attraction moves to its new location at University Town Center at the end of the year. He said replacing those visits will help benefit businesses in St. Armands Circle. 

A new boat dock, he said, will serve a water taxi service the company would operate between City Island and Sarasota to help reduce traffic congestion and enhance the experience of visiting City Island and St. Armands. 

Ride Entertainment, he told commissioners, would assume all financial obligations for the improvements as well as maintenance of the park, which would remain under city ownership. Ride Entertainment would also pay a fair rent to the city. Commissioners voted 3-2, with Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch and Debbie Trice opposed, to refer the project to the PREP Board for further evaluation.

The PREP Board is an advisory committee and can only send recommendations to the City Commission. Those who spoke on the subject at the Thursday evening meeting encouraged its members to not endorse the concept. Among them was Lido Key resident Carl Shoffstall, who was an original member of the PREP Board when it was created in 2012. He served until 2018, chairing the committee for four years.

Sarasota County turned over park operations within the city limits to the city in 2012, at which time the city created its own parks department and created the PREP Board.

“We had many proposals to privatize some of the parks,” Shoffstall said of his tenure. “The citizens of Sarasota were adamant that they didn't want this to happen in any of the parks. Now you are being presented with another proposal to privatize another park. My ask to the PREP Board is not to allow this to happen.”

Ken Thompson is among the largely untouched parks within the city’s network since the county turnover. The Sarasota Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which was adopted in 2018, guides park improvements. Public engagement sessions for input on improvements on City Island is anticipated to begin within two years.

“Ken Thompson Park on City Island is a civic gem,” said resident Bob Thill. “It’s a habitat for shore birds and mangroves, and it's essential for stormwater retention. It could use improvements of course. More shade trees, benches and an enhanced playground can easily be envisioned. It can be implemented and maintained by the city's parks department, keeping its already beautiful natural charm and public access to the bay and all its beauty.”

Coalition of City Neighborhood Associations President Richard Harris said opposition to commercializing is unanimous among leadership of the city’s officially recognized neighborhood groups.

“The idea of commercializing a park, which was before the City Commission on the fifth of this month, by a private company will soon be on your table,” Harris said. “The direction of the member associations of CCNA are authoring a resolution against any commercialization or privatization of any Sarasota park by any for-profit organization. It will be approved by every member neighborhood association citywide.”

In addition to the Aerobar, park golf and a restaurant, Ride Entertainment is proposing a fishing pier, topiary garden, tree climbing park, splash pad, new dock, refurbished beach, trails, zip-line course, kayak and paddleboard rentals, observation pier and more. Existing 350 parking spaces, mostly outside Mote Marine, would be used for the park. 

Adding 1% more building coverage, according to Ride Entertainment’s presentation, would leave 97% green space in the park.

“For whom is this park being activated?” Harris asked the PREP Board. “Is it for the city residents or is it for tourists? That's a big question. I suspect they want us to give them the land so that they can use it for an amusement park. We don't want that. The environmental impact could overwhelm the natural balance of Sarasota Bay.”



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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