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Attraction park proposed for Sarasota's City Island

Ride Entertainment wants to bring park golf, a 120-foot-tall tower ride and more to a reimagined Ken Thompson Park via private-public partnership.

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The organization that once attempted to persuade the city to allow it to install a permanent carousel and brought the 2022 Winter Spectacular to the Circle Park on St. Armands Circle is now planning to pitch a public-private venture to turn Ken Thompson Park on City Island into an attraction.

Jeff Koffman, a Sarasota resident and partner with his brother, David, in Ride Entertainment will appear before the City Commission at its Feb. 5 meeting to propose a joint venture to convert the passive park, which a Kimley-Horn study he commissioned describes as underutilized, into an active park potentially with a restaurant; a food court; a splash pad; topiary gardens; a nine-hole course for park golf, a hybrid of mini-golf and croquet; and, the main attraction, an Aerobar. Aerobar is a circular gondola that lifts passengers 120 feet into the air and rotates 360 degrees to provide a panoramic view.

According to Koffman’s presentation, benefits to the city include:

  • All financial risk is assumed by Ride Entertainment.
  • Enhancements planned by Ride Entertainment are intended to make the park more attractive and engaging for all ages.
  • The city will receive fair rent for the land use, creating a new revenue stream without sacrificing public ownership.
  • Improvements will elevate the park to a destination status, attracting residents and visitors alike to benefit local businesses and the city’s overall image.
  • The proposed partnership requires no financial investment by the city. The private organization has the necessary capital funds for all enhancements.
  • In the event of default, the city will retain ownership of all improvements made to the park.
  • Ride Entertainment will be responsible for all maintenance of the park.
  • The plan includes refurbishing a beach area, enhancing its appeal and safety, funded entirely by Ride Entertainment.
  • In coordination with the city, Ride Entertainment will create and execute a national and local marketing strategy for Ken Thompson Park.
  • Financing and operation of a water taxi service to City Island.

Concerns about traffic

Although Koffman says activation of the park with an accompanying water taxi will help reduce traffic, the proposal likely won’t come without opposition from residents of St. Armands, Lido and Longboat keys. They have in the past resisted Koffman’s overtures, citing private, for-profit uses of public land and activities that draw more traffic to St. Armands Key that exacerbate frequent traffic problems.

As an example, St. Armands Residents Association President Chris Goglia sent the Observer an email at 1 p.m. Saturday, showing traffic backed up from from 14th Street at U.S. 41 across the Ringling Bridge to St. Armands Circle, the cause of was unknown.

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Anything that draws additional traffic to Lido Beach or City Island, especially during season is unwarranted, Goglia said.

"We're about to enter the high tourist season and on good beach weather days we're going to be experiencing peak traffic, during which you won't want to even try to leave the islands between 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.” he said. “Is this a good time of the year to add events, festivals and tourist attractions out here?”

Goglia isn’t alone. His positions on matters affecting St. Armands residents, he said, are a reflection of his board of directors. On Friday afternoon, he said he sent an email to 300 recipients advising them of the coming discussion. By Saturday morning he had received 10 responses.

“Every single one of the 10 expressed opposition to it for a lot of different reasons,” he said.

Koffman is aware the proposal will meet with acrimony. As for the additional traffic, he said when the new Mote Science Education Aquarium opens at the end of this year and commercial aquarium operations at its City Island location cease, so will the roughly 300,000 visits — and the vehicle traffic that comes with them. He said he anticipates visits to a more activated Ken Thompson Park to be fewer in number.

“The park golf is controllable with a reservation system, so we would only have maybe five people releasing every five minutes or so,” Koffman said. “You have a finite number of people that you can have, roughly about 100 per hour, and that would be spread out over the number of hours that we'd be open.”

As for the Aerobar, Koffman said it is an eight-minute ride operating on 10-minute cycles. 

The proposal also includes the fare-based water taxi service from the city side of the bay to provide an alternative access to City Island and, in collaboration with the city for shuttle service, to St. Armands Circle as well.

Koffman said his plans for Ken Thompson Park will utilize the existing 300-space parking lot that currently serves both the park and Mote Marine, will preserve nearly all the current green space with a portion used for the park golf course, add a potential small restaurant and will replace some, but not all, of the current Mote visitors. 

He added there are no plans for festivals or concerts in the park.

“We’ll drive people through the water taxi. We'll get people through the trolley. We'll have the electronic scooters so you're not going to have the traffic that you have right now with the Mote,” Koffman said. “Also the day is longer, because you will have attendance spread out over a longer period of time.”



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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