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Gillespie Park neighborhood feud frustrates city

Gillespie Park is the only neighborhood in Sarasota that has two competing neighborhood associations.
Gillespie Park is the only neighborhood in Sarasota that has two competing neighborhood associations.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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Two competing neighborhood associations within the same geographic boundary were back before the Sarasota City Commission on Tuesday in a reprise of an October 2023 battle over which association should receive consideration during the next round of neighborhood partnership grants.

For years, the Original Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association, a 40-year-old group, and the Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association have been embroiled in a squabble largely, it appears, over freelance projects the associations take on within the namesake park central to the community. The GPNA splintered off from the OGPNA two decades ago.

The squabble came to a head in October when the OGPNA alleged the GPNA cut OGPNA members out of a grant application process, leading to a protracted debate before the commissioners that resulted in no grant at all and admonishment from the dais that the two groups engage with staff to figure out how to work out their differences and perhaps even merge. In the meantime the commission would consider separate grant applications in the next round. 

“We have, requested that they try to come together and either form one neighborhood association or consider which one of them will have a grant put forward, and we find ourselves again in a similar situation where two of them have submitted grants and they're not working together for the common good of the entire neighborhood," said City Manager Marlon Brown. ”We have frustrated staff. Something has to be done.” 

Consistent with the October direction, though, commissioners were tasked to decide which of the two grant requests would move forward — the OGPNA submitting an application for $1,000 to host two movie nights in the park and the GPNA requesting $750 to bolster the neighborhood’s community composting program.

The city's Grant Review Committee was scheduled to meet on Feb. 22, when it would score the applications submitted by neighborhoods from throughout the city for the grant package that will go before the commission at its March 18 meeting.

Erik Arroyo, who said as a fiscal matter he opposes the neighborhood grant program altogether, intimated that an internal neighborhood kerfuffle should not rise to the level of the City Commission.

“I don't think this body is a mediating body, and this sets the wrong precedent for other disputes like this when we have so many other issues come before us,” he said.

After taking 90 minutes in October, the grant dispute occupied another 96 minutes on Tuesday, prompting Arroyo to state that until the neighborhood learns to come together under one association, no money should be granted to Gillespie Park.

“I think we should deny both, and my final words are: If you can't play nicely in the sandbox together, nobody gets the sandbox,” he said.

Brown agreed with Arroyo, adding that his email account provides plenty of evidence that efforts toward détente were made, but were unsuccessful. 

“I'll give you the easy answer,” Brown said to commissioners’ questions about how to bring the neighborhood associations together. “Deny these grants. I know this is hurting the neighborhood, because there are individuals who probably benefit from these things, but maybe you deny the grants and say until you come up with one neighborhood association you won’t be considered.”

Instead, Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch made the motion to move forward the GPNA application to enhance the community composting program, which passed 3-2 with Arroyo and Debbie Trice opposed.

Facilitator denied

During the discussion, the idea of assigning the dispute to a city-assigned arbitrator to attempt to unite the dueling associations was raised, which eventually resulted in a motion to approve that failed 3-2 with Arroyo, Trice and Mayor Liz Alpert opposed.

“Just to be clear, I tried to bring the groups together twice, and this was back in 2020,” Ahearn-Koch said. “This has been going on for a very long time, and if it is going to cost us two months and a facilitator a couple of hours, I say we go for it.”

Arroyo, though, would prefer to put the two sides in the previously referenced sandbox and let them decide if they can play together after all without the city getting dirt on its hands.

“Is this really a precedent that we would like to set?” Arroyo asked as the lunch break approached. “There’s a feud between neighborhood associations. They come to us and we're going to pay for a facilitator for them to discuss it? I'm against this being mediated here. I'm against spending money to mediate it anywhere else. This is a gigantic waste of money, and I think everybody wants to go to lunch.”

Additionally, by consensus the commission tasked Brown to develop criteria for officially recognizing neighborhood associations — of which there are 55 in the city with only two representing the same neighborhood — and bring the back to commissioners for discussion at a later date.



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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