When I think about those things in our community that are accessible, free, and welcoming to everyone in our community – the list is very short: a few smaller parks sprinkled throughout our area, public libraries, and, of course, our beautiful beaches, and that’s about it.
The Bay, our 53-acre waterfront park, will help to change all that, by providing a green-and-blue oasis on the Sarasota bayfront where our richly diverse population can all come together as one community.
According to A.G. Lafley, CEO of The Bay Park Conservancy, from the very beginning of the project, initiated by Sarasota Bayfront 20:20, its vision statement was quite clear:
“We support the creation of a long-term master plan for the Sarasota bayfront area that will establish a cultural and economic legacy for the region, while ensuring open, public access to the bayfront.”
That vision and its guiding principles were presented to and endorsed by the City Commission in February of 2015. And while there were many opinions about The Bay, “If there was one thing on which there was broad community agreement, it was that these 50-plus acres should be open and accessible to the public,” Lafley said, adding that accessibility quickly became a bedrock foundation principle for the project.
Luz Corcuera, executive director of UnidosNow, noted that “We have seen that from the very beginning The Bay has reached out to different communities, including the Latino community, wanting to hear our voices and get our input.
“I think The Bay will provide a place where we can integrate our community and not be afraid of reaching out to others who may not sound or look exactly like we do,” Corcuera said. “I think we just need to extend an open invitation for everyone to come experience The Bay and see for themselves how beautiful it is. In the future, as we begin hosting events that have appeal for everybody, it will allow us to have something that we don’t have right now – one diverse community where every person, of every age, of every culture, is welcome.”
Director of Advancement Veronica Brady agreed, noting that the moment she is waiting for is that moment when she sees people coming to the park, even with their masks on, smiling, waving, and connecting with each other on some level – creating that sense of community. “I am a big believer in creating shared common purposes. That’s what brings people together. Even if that shared purpose is watching a beautiful sunset – it is still a common purpose,” she said.
Attorney and Bay Park Conservancy Board Member Keith DuBose says that having grown up in Sarasota, he is excited about the exceptional opportunity The Bay will provide to create diverse, long-term community access for residents of different backgrounds. “The Bay will open up Sarasota’s beautiful waterfront to community members from all walks of life. Everyone will benefit from exposure to this timeless treasure.”
To this day, Lafley, the former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, still gets excited about parks and their ability to bring people together. “I grew up in a modest, middle-class home – six of us with three bedrooms and one bathroom – and every Saturday we were at the public library checking out books and our play area was either the tiny, postage-stamp-sized yard we had, the school grounds, or a public park. That was it. So, yes, I am very committed to public parks.”
The Bay will be open and accessible, but Lafley likes to take it a step further. “I would say the park will be open, accessible, FREE and WELCOMING to the full and rich diversity of our community.”
Let’s start with open and accessible. The Bay will be open seven days a week, 365 days a year, from sometime after dawn until sometime after sunset. “Even if we have a reserved space within the park (for a family picnic, a reunion, or a work group gathering, for example), the remainder of the park will stay open. We will never allow a private event to get in the way of keeping the remainder of the park open to the public,” Lafley said.
Free is equally important. “Clearly, what goes on at the performing arts center is not going to be free, but we are creating a variety of outdoor spaces, which will host all kinds of arts and cultural performances,” Lafley said. On his wish list is a big screen outside the performing arts center that can be used to share sold-out performances with public park visitors, which they can enjoy sitting from the lawns. “There is one outside the performing arts center in Miami and the Opera House in Vienna has one,” Lafley explained. “They help make the arts totally accessible to the community.”
A variety of free performances and events within the park are already being planned. Whether it is a performance by the orchestra, the opera, one of our amazing theaters, dance troupes, food-and-wine events, cultural gatherings, art shows, or some other form of entertainment, the goal is for all of those performances to be free. “Even if The Bay Park Conservancy has to pay for a performance, we would go out and get a sponsor so the performance could still be free to the public,” Lafley added.
But, Lafley said, just because something is public and open, and even free, that does not ensure that it is welcoming. You have to work at making people feel welcome, by offering programming that is inclusive for everyone.
As of the last Census, the African American community accounted for 13-14 percent of the city of Sarasota, while another 17-18 percent of the population is Hispanic/Latino. “Shame on us if we don’t have the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, and other groups that celebrate the African-American and Latino cultures, performing there. We have been working with UnidosNow and other organizations to find ways to reach out to all of our neighbors.
“We are hopeful that our city’s diversity will be reflected in those who visit the park, but it doesn’t just happen. You can’t just sit back and say “Here’s the park. It’s open.” You have to let people know that everyone is truly welcome.
“This is why our education programs are so important,” Lafley explained. For example, The Bay received a major grant from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, which is going toward program activation and educational programs. “Once we have our Mangrove Bayou Walkway and our Sunset Boardwalk in place, that will become a learning laboratory for local students,” he said. “The Van Wezel will bring the kids in for a performance and we’ll bring the kids in for outdoor activities, both educational and recreational. And, once we have the kids involved, the families will follow.”
“We have always believed this would be a place for people to learn,” said Brady. “From the beginning, we referred to Phase 1 as our living, learning lab. This includes learning on a couple of different levels, everything from offering docent tours for visitors to the park to working with the Sarasota County School System to create in-person learning experiences for kids. The Bay Park Conservancy will be learning, as well, taking lessons learned from Phase I and applying them to the remaining 43 acres.
According to Brady, there were always going to be three primary focus areas: recreation, education and arts and culture. Starting in 2022, visitors to the park can look for park programming that will include a wide variety of arts and cultural events, educational programming, health and wellness (think meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi), and fitness and recreation, including walking and biking.
Though still in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, The Bay is already hosting a health-focused series of events called “A Great Day at The Bay.” For example, it’s a great day at The Bay to go for a walk, it’s a great day at The Bay to walk your dog, it’s a great day at The Bay to go for a bike ride, and the list goes on and on. “It’s a reminder to people that while most of us continue to be very careful, it is a wonderful time to get out and enjoy this free and public park that is open and accessible to everyone,” Brady said.
The Bay is also partnering with the Van Wezel Performing Hall and All Faiths Food Bank for the food bank’s first-of-the-season turkey distribution, Saturday, Nov. 7, in the Van Wezel parking lot. They are anticipating giving out 500 frozen turkeys with all the trimmings. One of the things The Bay will do is to include a map (in English and Spanish) that invites people, once they have enjoyed their healthy dinner, to come take a walk at The Bay.
The Bay’s designers also have paid particular attention to access for the disabled and people with any type of handicap. There are multiple drop-off spots for those with disabilities. And the park was designed to make it easy for those in wheelchairs, or those using canes or walkers to get around the park’s 53 acres.
“We have tried to make every piece of the park welcoming and accessible, depending on what you want to do that day. If you want to find a quiet spot with a good book, you will be able to do that. If you want to throw a frisbee around, or roll a kickball around, you can do that. If you want to have a picnic, you can do that, too.
The public boat launch also is open, accessible and free. Up in the canal zone, there will be docks all along where the current boat launch is located. You will be able to dock there, visit the park, go to one of the restaurants or even attend a Van Wezel performance. When complete, it will be a boater-friendly environment. Eventually, Lafley said, this part of The Bay may become a hub for water taxis that would take people from our keys to the mainland.
Jim Shirley, executive director of the Arts and Cultural Alliance, notes that “The Bay is one of the most important projects that the community can be doing and is doing – looking ahead to future generations.”
If you think about it, Shirley said, when John Ringling brought his art collection here and had the foresight to leave the museum, the collection and the mansion to the community, that was one of the founding events that made Sarasota what it is today. “If you look ahead,” he added, “it will be the welcoming, unfettered public access to one of the most beautiful waterfronts in the world that will set the tone for who we are going to be. If you want to have an iconic branding for this community going forward, it will be the beautiful waterfront that will be accessible to all of our citizens and visitors, with programming that highlights not only the arts, but recreation and education. I think The Bay will become the anchor that will influence what people of the world think of Sarasota, Florida 50 years from now.”
Open, accessible, free, and welcoming – The Bay is well on its way to becoming a blue-and-green oasis where our entire community can come together, now and for generations to come.
About the Author: Gayle Guynup is a life-long Sarasota resident and former editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where she worked for 18 years. She now owns her own company, Content Connection, focusing on creative written content.