Photo: Phase 1 of The Bay

Despite Politics and the Pandemic, The Bay Moves Forward in Sarasota

Posted on October 15, 2020 by Carrie Seidman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Editor's Note: This article is written by columnist Carrie Seidman and originally appeared in the Herald-Tribune on October 7, 2020.

Given our focus on the crushing health and economic impacts of the pandemic and the bruising political pantheon, it's been easy to forget that Sarasota continues to move forward with The Bay, its ambitious plan to turn 53 acres of downtown waterfront into a natural and cultural playground. But while the project, projected to cost several hundred million dollars before its completion 10 to 20 years from now, may have disappeared from the headlines, it is still very much a part of our area's vision for the future.

The most recent progress has been both physical and financial. The initial western section of Phase I – a mangrove walkway – recently opened to the public in the area between Boulevard of the Arts and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, with a quarter-mile of rubberized, 10-foot wide sidewalk, and ecological improvements. It was primarily paid for with private philanthropic dollars, as will be the remainder of the estimated $25 million first phase, scheduled to be completed by January 2021.

The feasibility of the remainder of the project took a giant step forward on Sept. 22 when the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners approved (4-0, with Commissioner Mike Moran, an established critic, absent due to a family emergency) terms of an interlocal agreement with the city for tax increment financing plan that could generate more than $200 million for the project over its 30-year duration. The City Commission will consider giving the TIF agreement a final stamp of approval at its next regular meeting on Oct. 19. (Public comment, online or in person, will be accepted.)

"We were very fortunate to get our permits for the mangrove walk before the pandemic hit, so we were able to break ground and move ahead," said Bill Waddill, chief implementation officer for The Bay Park Conservancy. "As for the TIF, approving the legal language got put on hold a little with the pandemic, but we're back on track, and hopeful the City Commission will affirm their agreement, which we expect they will."

A TIF is a municipal government financing tool that captures the value of appreciating property to pay for development costs of a significant civic improvement. In this case, it will take the increased revenue generated from both city and county millage rates within the TIF district – the 53 acres and the downtown area immediately surrounding the site – and put it in a trust to pay for the park, a new performing arts center to replace the Van Wezel and improved connectivity to the venue.

"The good thing about a TIF is, there's no increase to anyone's taxes," Waddill said. "If the property value doesn't rise, there's no funding. It's only generated as we build out the park. I think it's a really equitable way to help the city and county fund these future phases."

Using January 2019 rates as a baseline, the TIF would begin generating payments in 2022. With an "optimistic" goal of opening the park within 10 years, it's anticipated there will need to be an issuance of bonds at about years four and eight to expedite the build-out; the TIF would continue to pay the mortgage on those bonds even if development was completed.

The early TIF revenue will likely be combined with philanthropic dollars to expedite construction of a new performing arts center, which alone is expected to cost $250 million. (The Van Wezel Foundation recently launched a survey to gather public input on the facility.) That's because the PAC's location at the center of the site means it needs to be finished before "we can turn the parking lot into a park," Waddill said.

Establishing the TIF will also be instrumental in soliciting the private financial backing that is anticipated to cover about half the cost of the performing arts center and the park.

"It's a huge step forward toward then leveraging private philanthropy," Waddill said. "It shows the city and county are firmly in support of funding this initiative, and that's really big. It gives a lot of assurances to the private sector that their money is going to a worthy cause."

It's intimidating to think about such enormous numbers at a time when so many local businesses and individuals are struggling to remain viable. But it's also important to remember that The Bay has been committed, from day one to creating a venue that will offer free, open access and opportunities to all, regardless of economic status.

And while it's true that the performing arts center will have ticketed events out of financial reach for many, Waddill says every effort will be made to make the park's cultural offerings available to the less well-heeled. For example, there are plans for a large projection screen and an event lawn outside the PAC, so that while ticketed events are going on inside, others could watch the same show by video outside.

Residents like David Lough, a community activist who lives in the neighboring Rosemary District, hopes locals will consider the longer term "bigger picture" when contemplating their support of the TIF and The Bay, as well as the expansion of Selby Gardens, all of which could affect the quality of life in Sarasota for generations to come.

"Here we are in an economic crisis of sorts, and we have these multigenerational things coming before our community in tough economic times," Lough said. "If ever there was a time to come together in this crazy political world and make some investment in our arts community, which has been devastated, wouldn't it be nice if we showed we are willing to invest in these elements of the fabric of our community for when we come out of this, and beyond?"

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