Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune by Guest Columnist Cathy Layton, chair of the Bay Park Conservancy.
The inspiring exchange began with a simple question: Is your salmon wild or farmed? Farmed was the answer, but Waiter Andre then explained how farmed salmon was healthier than our alternative choice, chicken, which then evolved into his view of the importance of the sea to ancient civilizations.
“All great civilizations began with access to the sea and its bounties,” he excitedly remarked, which got me thinking about our town, our area, which also drew people seeking the abundance of food and animals, and who, too, survived on the sea’s teeming life.
Paleo Indians came here for the same reason, followed centuries later by settlers whose names are on so many of our streets, bayous, creeks, and rivers. Even applied locally, Andre was right: Great civilizations are indeed drawn to our bays, our rivers, and our Gulf.
Our community’s exercise in master planning, “The Bay,” 53 acres of our most precious city land, reflects the collective passions of our citizens, determined by our broad and deep community outreach effort.
While some may initially be most excited about recreational, civic, cultural or performance opportunities for the site, the Blue and Green Oasis we envisioned — celebrating the natural beauty and environmental health of the acreage — may provide the broadest benefit of all.
The Bay Park Conservancy will first and foremost establish a perpetual conservancy for this land for the public. We will join the ranks of other visionary cities that boast conservation lands, such as Central Park in New York, Piedmont Park in Atlanta, and Balboa Park in San Diego.
An important part of Phase 1, thanks to the recent generosity of the Barancik Foundation, will revitalize the historic coastal mangrove inlet and bayou and begin to restore its habitat as soon as we receive our state permits later this year. The site’s history of learning will flourish again, as visitors will be in and among the mangroves and augmented native palm hammock, engaging in hands-on, feet-in living/learning lab experiences.
The Bay Park will be a model for incorporating resilience planning and shoreline stabilization. Water quality in Sarasota Bay and the Gulf will be greatly improved by converting these paved 53 acres to green park, as our site currently discharges storm-water runoff directly into the Sarasota Bay.
Our vastly improved storm-water treatment program, while converting acres of impervious surface to green space, will revitalize seagrasses and aquatic life in the bay and bayou.
Additionally, this “treatment train” will reduce the amount of harmful bacteria and pathogens from pet waste, trash and other debris that enters our precious bay, thereby minimizing related health hazards to humans, oyster beds, seagrasses, corals and other aquatic life. A healthier bay lessens the excess nutrients that contribute to algal blooms, including red tide.
All of these collective improvements will also enhance the experience for paddle-sport aficionados, boaters, and fishermen and women.
This past year has brought the health of Sarasota Bay and the Gulf of Mexico into the forefront of Sarasota County and the west coast of Florida conversations and concerns.
How fortuitous that an aspirational, community-led, community-based project not only can connect us, enliven this area, and serve as a hub for our arts and cultural legacies, but also restore a sizable area of what drew people to this area in the first place: our waterfront. Our mangroves. Our Bay.
In the next few weeks, the Bay Park Conservancy looks forward to finalizing a partnership agreement with the City of Sarasota and continuing to represent the bold aspirations of our community’s and region’s citizens.
We will continue with the planning and design of Phase 1 and deliver as soon as possible the first of several successful phases of the master plan.
Please continue to follow and support the process by visiting our website, www.thebaysarasota.org, attending our meetings and forums, and believing in and supporting this community dream.