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Potential City Island investors want to leave a legacy

The many endeavors of entrepreneurs Jeffrey and David Koffman, who say capitalism begets altruism, include a plan to grow City Island's status as an attraction.

David and Jeff Koffman at their day job as owners of Design Works in downtown Sarasota.
David and Jeff Koffman at their day job as owners of Design Works in downtown Sarasota.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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Near the conclusion of the Feb. 20 meeting of the City Commission, Mayor Liz Alpert took the commissioners’ comments period to admonish what she sees as hostility toward individuals and organizations who bring proposals to staff and commissioners.

Although not mentioning him by name, the comment was likely in reference to Sarasota resident Jeffrey Koffman, who during the Feb. 5 meeting pitched commissioners on a public-private partnership to activate Ken Thompson Park on City Island.

It wasn’t the first time Koffman brought a proposal to the city. His family has a history of creating attractions, building hotels, owning a country club, operating a water taxi service. Since relocating here three years ago, Koffman has pitched a permanent carousel at St. Armands’ Circle park and spearheaded the one and only Winter Spectacular event in the park in 2022.

The Koffman brothers’ most recent idea is to activate the largely passive Ken Thompson Park by investing millions of dollars to rehabilitate the 25-acre city property with a beach restoration, day docks, splash pad, topiary garden, walking trails and more. In exchange, they also want to use a portion of the park to make Sarasota the U.S. headquarters for park golf, a globally growing miniature version of the sport that is played with a single mallet-like, non-lofted club and a plastic ball.

The city would retain ownership and control of the park, Koffman told commissioners, and to help alleviate traffic congestion their company would operate a fee-based water taxi service across Sarasota Bay to City Island. They’d also like the option to include  an observation deck-type tower attraction called Aerobar.

Although met with opposition from long-suffering barrier island residents concerned about traffic and others citing the use of public space for private enterprise, the commissioners voted 3-2 to send the matter to the Park, Recreation and Environmental Protection board for further evaluation. 

So who are these two brothers from upstate New York and why do they continue to expose themselves to public consternation?

“Why are we doing this? Well there's an altruism. Yes, there is capitalism, but there is altruism because without leadership, without people pushing for an impetus for change, change will never happen,” said Jeffrey Koffman. “I use the analogy of the Ringling Bridge. There was so much opposition to the Ringling Bridge, and today it is the scenic icon promoting Sarasota.”

The Koffman family, the brothers said, has left a legacy of philanthropy and entrepreneurism in New York and New Jersey, and would like to do the same in their adopted home city.

“He's got a young kid. I have kids and I'm hoping for grandchildren pretty soon,” said David Koffman, who also serves on the Sarasota Performing Arts Foundation Board of Directors. “Here there are restaurants and the bars and fun stuff for young people, but there's really just not a lot for people to do, and you're going to have an extra 20,000 or 30,000 people moving here. We thought that this would be something that that we would do to try to help that, and it would be good because nobody uses that space at this point.”

Diverse business background

Jeffrey Koffman has stated that activating Ken Thompson Park will result in less traffic than current levels to and from City Island, and by extension St. Armands, Lido and Longboat keys. Their plan would bring fewer people there than does the Mote Aquarium, which will move to the University Town Center area at the end of 2024, and that many who do come will travel by the water taxi they operate rather than by car. An activated Ken Thompson Park will also replace at least some of the business lost to St. Armands merchants and restaurants once the aquarium vacates, along with its 300,000 annual visitors.

He said the family has the experience and the resources to implement the plan with no risk to the city. The family was formerly involved with S&S Worldwide — where Jeffrey Koffman was chairman of the board of directors — a leading manufacturer of roller coasters, drop towers, carousels and more. Among the Koffmans’ business entities is Ride Entertainment, a name they said perhaps conveyed the wrong message. Having secured the official marketing and sanctioning rights for park golf in the U.S., they are rebranding.

Jeffrey and David Koffman in June 2023
Photo by Mark Wemple

“We’re changing the name to Park Golf Entertainment,” Jeffrey Koffman said. “We’re doing it because Ride Entertainment is misleading. We are not an amusement, and that’s why we are changing the name.”

The Koffmans began moving the family enterprise here when they acquired Florida Design Works in 2001, which in addition to the downtown Sarasota flagship has kitchen and bath design studios in Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Miami, Naples and Tampa. 

“David had made Sarasota his home since 2004,” Jeffrey Koffman said. "We bought Design Works in February 2001. He was smart enough to move here three years later. I finally got here in 2020, but I’ve been coming here ever since and my mom and dad moved here in 2005.”

They continue to own Mountain Creek Resort in Vernon, New Jersey, a four-season resort that includes winter sports, a water park and golf. Having recently sold as portion of nine holes for housing, the remainder of those holes has been converted to park golf. They are also building a park golf course at Star Island Resort and Club in Kissimmee. They also own two bagel shops in Sarasota under the Buddy's Bagels brand.

According to the City Island plan, revenue generated by park golf, a small restaurant and the scenic tower would support the maintenance of the Ken Thompson Park.

“I think if people took the time to actually see what park golf is, that they see that the water taxi helps alleviate traffic, If they read the study and understand when the traffic is bad, if they took the time to inform themselves then a lot of that opposition will go away,” Jeffrey Koffman said.

To counter the opposition to public-private ventures in city parks, Jeffrey Koffman points to the city’s own Parks and Recreation Master Plan, which was adopted in 2019. On Page 111, it reads: “The parks and recreation vision will not be accomplished by the city alone, but through partnerships with public, private, and/or non-profit agencies.”

“We’re aligning ourselves with the master plan,” Jeffrey Koffman said. “We're not creating large buildings. We would have a beachfront restaurant, park golf — whether or not the scenic tower goes I think it would  be awesome —  but the most important thing is green space and we are proposing to keep almost all of that.”

The Koffmans’ first official appearance to advance their Ken Thompson Park plan will be before the PREP Board, which has yet to be scheduled. That panel will hear both sides of the debate before sending its recommendation to the City Commission.

“We're prepared to go through the process,” Koffman said. “We want a healthy dialogue on how can we take what's in the master plan and incorporate it.  We're collaborative, and somebody has to take the lead. This is a collaborative process, so if people are going to be negative, they're going to be negative. Hopefully, sound principle and judgment will win the day.”



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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