Leadership in Action on The Bay

Gulf Coast


Last Monday marked the most important milestone yet in the multiyear effort to create a signature public park on Sarasota’s Bayfront. With a unanimous 5-0 vote, Sarasota’s City Commission approved a partnership agreement between the City and The Bay Park Conservancy, the nonprofit community-created entity that will oversee the design, building, and operation of The Bay Park on 53 acres of public land surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Huge thanks and hearty congratulations are due to all who have made the progress to this point possible. There isn’t room in just a few hundred words to properly thank everyone—because literally thousands of community members have actively, positively participated in getting The Bay to where it is today. Suffice it here for me to broadly thank:

  • the succession of citizen-led coalitions that conceived of and have advanced the project;
  • the philanthropists who made the master plan for the site possible;
  • City staff who are working in diligent collaboration with their community-based  counterparts;
  • the elected leaders who carefully weighed and dutifully acted on their responsibility; and
  • the many, many residents who have shared ideas, voiced opinions, advocated for the needs and wants of their communities, and otherwise engaged in the planning process so far.

I would, however, like to focus in on the crucial role that City Commissioners played Monday (and will continue to play moving forward). From its inception, The Bay project has been characterized as an opportunity to “realize the possibilities” for our community. The commissioners’ deliberation and ultimate decision coincidentally offers a glimpse of what is possible from our leaders.

Every few years, Gulf Coast Community Foundation commissions an “environmental scan” of our region. Like a business-planning tool for our communities’ success and well-being, this scan synthesizes objective public data with community perceptions and insights in order to chart the direction our region is heading and identify priorities and opportunities we should act on together.

Our last scan, in 2017, highlighted a need for leadership to be more proactive and willing to work together to move our region forward. It noted a common perception that elected officials and public managers lacked consistent and unified leadership. Gulf Coast is hard at work on our latest scan, and one initial finding I can tease here is a continued feeling that our leaders show inconsistency when it comes to implementation and action. Monday’s vote and the process leading up to it could be seen as an exception to that perception. I’d prefer to think that it comes as an early, exemplary rebuttal of it.

Monday’s vote was all about moving from plan to implementation. It built on and honored deliberate decision-making up to that point, and it enables the start of an implementation process that, wisely, will be phased too. It allows our community to sustain momentum on a transformative project that has broad support and diverse benefits for all.

A successful partnership of this magnitude requires accountability and trust. With unanimous approval of the partnership agreement, both were on display. Philanthropists and other funders who will be invited and encouraged to invest in The Bay can now see that. On to Phase 1!

Mark S. Pritchett is president and CEO of Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

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