Editor's Note: This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to digital access.
Sarasota Mayor Hagen Brody and city staff are working on a proposal to begin connecting public parks to free Wi-Fi this year.
Brody says that they are actively exploring their best options for how to accomplish this goal.
"As soon as our staff has options for commission consideration, I'll be bringing those forward in what I expect to be the near future," Brody said. "We are pretty confident we have some reasonable options and a path forward on this."
According to Brody, the goal is to have some public parks with access to Wi-Fi before the end of 2021 and to expand service from there. He says that he's confident that the project can be supported by funding the city has access to and that there will be no cost to taxpayers.
He points out that the effects of COVID-19 have shown a need for open-air spaces with Wi-Fi available to residents. Public buildings were often a go-to in the past, but outdoor spaces are a much safer place to access the internet, especially for those at high risk.
"Our libraries are available for people to use, but the city can do a better job of hooking up our public spaces with free Wi-Fi," said Brody. "I think people will not only use it for leisure, but also for work and school."
Kyle Battie represents District One, where some residents struggle to make ends meet.
"For many of the people in my district, paying for the internet after all their other bills would be considered a luxury," Battie said.
A park in his district that could benefit from Wi-Fi is Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, which attracts local residents and students from Ringling College. He is confident that the project could move forward this year.
"I don't see why anyone would vote against bringing internet access to those who need it," he said.
Like Battie, Vice-Mayor Erik Arroyo, District 3, wants to make sure those in his district reap the benefits of public Wi-Fi as much as anywhere else in the city. He hopes that the project will gain traction, especially for the health and well-being of Sarasota residents.
"We have a city commission that encourages and supports the use of technology, and having public spaces connected is a great step forward," Arroyo said. "Especially during the pandemic, many people, myself included, go to parks to get out of the house and clear their heads. I think this would absolutely help the mental health of our people."
Arroyo says having Wi-Fi in public parks will encourage people to be outside and active more often, while socially distanced and masked for safety.
Commissioner Liz Alpert said she supports free Wi-Fi in parks but did not elaborate further. Commissioner Jen Ahearn-Koch said she would need to see the plan first before saying if she would support the project. Gerald Steve Huard, public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, agrees that connecting parks would be positive for the city.
"We have beautiful parks in Sarasota, and having more reasons for people to be out in them would be a healthy move," Huard said. "Our indoor public spaces have done a great job of providing people with access, but our parks are definitely a healthy and safe option."
From major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Miami to smaller areas such as Lehigh Acres and Pinecrest, Florida, cities of all sizes have shown that Wi-Fi in parks is an attainable goal.
"It's time to bring our city up to par with other cities who have had this in place for a long time," said Arroyo.
The Miami New Times rated Evelyn Greer Park in Pinecrest as the best Wi-Fi in the South Florida area back in 2008 because of the experiences that come with accessing the internet outside.
The long-term goal for Sarasota, says Brody, is to bring free Wi-Fi to as many parks as the budget will allow. All told, it will be a multi-year project. He's excited about the effect it could have on the community.
"A project like this could benefit all residents of Sarasota, visitors, and increase the overall quality of life in our city," said Brody.