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Up & Down the Trail

Sarasota news

By Stan Zimmerman

Half-billion up for grabs
In what is likely to be the biggest financial decision of the decade, city and county commissioners in late January will hear the recommendations of an ad hoc committee on whether or not to perpetuate the downtown Sarasota Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA).

The agency was established in 1986 to fight slum and blight downtown, and uses a then-novel funding scheme. The city and county agreed to freeze their property taxes at the 1986 level; any increase (due to property assessment or millage hikes) would accrue to the CRA.

In the early years, it wasn’t much. But between 1986 and August of last year, the scheme pulled in $98,992,963…almost $100 million. However the CRA expires in 2016, so the ad hoc committee was established to make recommendations – give the CRA another 30 years? Service the same area? Keep 1986 as the “base year” for the tax-increment financing plan?

While the photons are not dry yet on the committee’s PowerPoint report, the major outlines are set. Yes, extend it for another 30 years. Yes, keep 1986 as the “base year” but change the way the CRA is governed. Now the Sarasota City Commission has total and complete control of the money, and now plows about half of it back in the city’s general fund to pay for police and other city obligations.

That hasn’t sat well with the ad hoc committee, which recommends a seven-member board be established of two city commissioners, two county commissioners and three city residents.

If the CRA’s term is extended another 30 years, the “compound interest” nature of the tax-increment scheme really begins to pay dividends. One study indicates if the CRA area remains the same, and continues to grow at 5.4 percent per year (the growth rate from 1986 to 2013), and the tax rate remains fixed, the “increment” could add up to $528 million between 2016 and 2046. A cool half-billion dollars, five times as much as it raised in the first 30 years.

Any extension plan must meet the approval of both the city and county commissions, under the lure of a $500 million “piñata.”

Sarasota begins building new EOC
The golden shovels were dusted off in early December for the official groundbreaking of a new $15 million emergency operations center. The bullet-proof building will also house the county’s 911 emergency call center.

The facility is designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and has redundant utilities and communications networks. A large radio tower next door will keep the EOC in touch with neighboring counties and the federal government. In a nod to sustainability, the design and construction aim to achieve a ”silver” rating from the Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).

The current EOC is on the top floor of the downtown high rise that contains the county administration center. While the building was formerly the local headquarters of a telephone company, is only rated to withstand a Category 2 storm. Officials fear in a Category 3 hurricane, the building is vulnerable.

The new facility is located much further east on Cattlemen Road.

First steps under way for homeless shelter
Environmental assessments of three sites picked for a new homeless shelter in Sarasota is underway. Robert Marbut is a nationally recognized figure on homelessness, and has worked with several cities across the county. HE selected three sites for consideration.

The three locations are 1330 N. Osprey Ave., 1121 Lewis Ave., and 1800 East Ave. The first two are with Sarasota city limits, while the third straddles the city-county line.

The 1330 Osprey site was Marbut’s top pick. It is owned by the city, and stands across 12th St. from the sewer treatment plant. The location puts it within walking distance of several social service agencies.

If one or all of the three sites clear the environmental hurdle, the next step will be finding sources of funding to building and operate a 24/7/365 facility to house as many as 250 people.

World Cup Pentathlon coming
Sarasota and Bradenton have been picked for three World Cup Pentathlon competitions in 2014, 2015 and 2016.  This year and in 2016, the area will host the finals. In 2015 it will host the first-round competition.

This is an unusual Olympic event in that it includes five separate competitions, combing equestrian jumping, sword fighting, swimming, running and pistol shooting. It is designed around the skills of a 19th Century military courier. An additional wrinkle, the horses are assigned randomly to the contestants.

Sarasota-Bradenton was in elite company in the contest to host the events. Other cities were Cairo, Frankfurt (Germany), Acapulco (Mexico), Rome, Budapest, Minsk (Belarus), Buenos Aires and Cheng Du (China).

This is one of the oldest modern Olympic events. George Patton was the first American ever to be an Olympic pentathlon competitor, participating in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. While he did not win a medal, he did go on to become a four-star army general.

Mabel’s fountain is reborn
In the fork in the road where U.S. 41 peels off to the west and the bayfront while U.S. 301 goes north, motorists will see a new and illuminated statute and fountain. It’s the handiwork of the Sarasota County Alliance for Historic Preservation.

They’ve unearthed the forgotten fountain dedicated to the memory of Mabel Ringling, wife of circus tycoon John. Mabel came in 1909 to what was basically a remote fishing village, and wintered with John until 1929 when she died. In those two decades, Mabel started what we’d now call a beautification movement. Garden clubs were formed, and as the city plan was devised, she argued strongly for more green space.

In 1936 the Sarasota Federation of Garden Circles decided to build a fountain in Mabel’s memory. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and Rotary Club chipped in, because Mabel helped found them too. But after WWII the fountain fell into ruin, and the city filled it with dirt.

In 2010 the alliance found the fountain, excavated and rehabilitated it. It will be re-dedicated to Mabel’s memory in mid-January. The rehab was made possible with two foundation grants and 85 donors, plus the help of 15 local contractors and volunteers  from the Sarasota Military Academy.

Rosemary rising
Sarasota’s real estate stepchild is starting to show signs of revitalization. The Rosemary District is north of downtown, across Fruitville Road. But from a revitalization point of view, it could be on the moon.

But plans are underway for two large projects that could serve as a catalyst to make Rosemary a desirable place to live, work and shop. One is called Rosemary Square. It would be a multi-use development with stores, galleries, restaurants and 40 rental units for housing. A second phase would include multi-level parking and either a “boutique cinema” or a live theater.

A second residential-only project has been proposed to straddle May Lane between Coconut and Florida Avenues. The developer wants the city to allow triple the existing density – to 75 from 25 units per acre.

The city commission has approved acceleration of a comprehensive plan amendment to increase the density. Details are sketchy at present, but the increased density could provide much-needed work-force housing close to downtown. Plus putting more people in the Rosemary District will increase the number of possible customers to businesses there and across Fruitvile.

Hotels galore
Sarasota is poised to receive a host of new hotel rooms, as plans for three large lodgings move forward. An 18-story hotel and condominium complex called the Sarasota Gulfstream has received a positive administrative site plan review by city staffers, paving the way to ask for building permits.

It is located at the high-visibility junction of U.S. 41 and the John Ringling Causeway, just south of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

A hotel complex proposed at the northern corner of Palm Ave. and Charles Ringling Boulevard has received its’ first construction permits. It will be an Aloft Hotel, with European business-style accommodations.

And the newly christened Sarasota Hotel will be a 10-story building at Palm Ave. and Coconut Ave. The project was formerly called “Floridays.” Architect Jonathan Parks said he considered the Sarasota Hotel “more important than the Ritz, which stand by itself. This one is downtown with its front door on Coconut.”

When you add the 18-story “Jewel” condominium going up at the foot of Main Street at Gulfstream Ave., it appears downtown is in the early stages of another significant building boom.

Welcome to the cafetorium   
More new construction will begin in April along U.S. 41, as the historic Bay Haven elementary school gets a cafetorium to replace its 60-year-old cafeteria. What’s a cafetorium? It’s a cafeteria with a stage on one end, to serve double-duty as a performing arts space.

The work should start in April with a new parking lot, and temporary playground relocation. Then the serious work begins to build the cafetorium, and then demolish the old cafeteria.

As part of the construction, the Sarasota County School Board wants to re-orient traffic involved in parent drop-off and pick-up of students. Right now it creates a serious traffic snarl in the neighborhood.

None of this requires a building permit, but school board officials will keep the city informed, and follow all appropriate building codes. The project manager expects all the work will be finished by October of 2015.

The historic school house was built in 1926, but shuttered in 1933 because county schools were closed for lack of cash. Bay Haven was kept alive with tuition, while families sponsored dinners to cover the costs for less-well-off students. Parents also provided food and milk, and worked in the kitchen during the day, providing meals for all.

Thus the connection between the school and its kitchen is much stronger historically than in most schools. The schools’ parent-teacher organization today still makes demands that parents actively participate in the school’s activities.

Addendum: We reported last month the Bullet Hole gun shop downtown is gone. We neglected to say it moved to a new location at 330 So. Orange Ave. It is a family-owned business since 1947, which made it newsworthy when it disappeared from it’s decades-long location on Main St.