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The CNC produces journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties for about a dozen media partners including newspapers, radio and television stations and magazines.

Pair of CEOs chat about The Bay as its first anniversary nears

A playground featuring figures of birds and reeds.
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
A whimsical playground maintains the park’s theme of environmental resilience.

Lafley helped launch the bayfront destination; Crockatt runs it now. Both love the same parts of the park.

The Bay Park, along the shores of Sarasota Bay in downtown Sarasota, celebrates its first anniversary from Oct. 18-22 with a series of special dates including a Halloween event, a multicultural festival, Taste of the Bay, a performance from Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and more.

In its first year, the signature spot has drawn a following to its initial phase, generally the space between the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Boulevard of the Arts. Performance spaces, shady relaxing spots, a mangrove bayou and more have attracted more than 250,000 visitors in the first nine months, either for a quiet stop or to take part in any number of the 550-plus scheduled events there.

Phase Two in years to come figures to expand into the footprint of the Van Wezel’s parking lot, which will one day also be occupied by a new performance site (with parking below). The Canal District, an event lawn, a trail that swings out over the bay are some of the highlights still come.

Funded by county and city tax revenue and private donations, since fiscal year 2021, Sarasota County and the city of Sarasota have each made payments totaling $2,341,525 in tax-increment funding to The Bay, with about $2.22 million from each expected in fiscal year 2024.

The Community News Collaborative chatted with founding CEO AG Lafley and current CEO Stephanie Crockatt, who assumed the office from Lafley last spring, to talk about the past, present and future of the 53-acre space.

Founding CEO AG Lafley
AG Lafley
/
Courtesy
Founding CEO AG Lafley

You were there at the beginning, and now you can actually walk through the park. How does that make you feel?

Lafley: It makes me incredibly happy because I believe we delivered on the main objective, which was creating, designing, building, and most importantly, activating and programming one park for all. And this park is truly one park for all.

How do you know that?

Lafley: We just have to walk through the park and look at the range of ages, the diversity of ethnicities and races, listen to all the different languages that are being spoken there. Look at all the different compositions of households, which have changed dramatically in the last 30, 40, 50 years in America. And you can see that like no other place in Sarasota. And I've been coming here since 1998 and owned a place here since 2004, like no other place in Sarasota. Everyone's here because it's accessible, it's open, it's free, and most importantly it's welcoming. It's welcoming.

Current CEO Stephanie Crockatt
BANKS / Stephanie Crockatt
/
Courtesy
Current CEO Stephanie Crockatt

What are you most looking forward to as you head into your own first year?

Crockatt: I’m going to be really focusing on building the conservancy, the steward that is going to now take care of this treasure in perpetuity. So, as we are going to be going into phase two as well, but my main goal is to make sure that this organization is sound and operating so that we are fulfilling all of the guiding principles that we've set forth.

What can people look forward to in phase two?

Crockatt: Phase two is actually a compilation of four projects and they will be happening somewhat simultaneously. Some will rise in priority because we're at different stages of design. So, what you're going to see is there will be the Sunset Pier project, there will be the Cultural District project that runs along Tamiami Trail and connects all of the wonderful historic buildings on site. We will have the resilient shoreline that actually is going to run along the water up by Van Wezel into the Canal District and the Canal District at the north part of the site is the fourth segment. So all of those will be happening in some type of sequence. We see that the Cultural District is further along right now in design.

Signposts guide visitors around The Bay Park.
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
Signposts guide visitors around The Bay Park.

The listening segment of the park’s planning process was deep. What did you hear from that process that surprised you?

Lafley: What matters is going back to that, listening carefully, observing carefully and seeking to understand what all of those individuals in the community really want. And it was crystal clear and they kept saying it over and over again, and it took us a little while to hear it. They wanted accessibility to their bay, Sarasota Bay. They wanted to be able to come onto this beautiful site, 53 acres. They wanted to see it transformed in a way that they, their families, their friends, their neighbors, and the people that come to town to visit them could use and enjoy.

What surprised you the most about the park?

Crockatt: I think what has surprised me the most is the fact that as this is one park for all people, there are so many different little nooks and individualized areas. I mean, if you look at the Garden Club and the Fountain Garden, that is its own little ecosystem. And if you look at the beach and the playground, it's its own little ecosystem. And if you look at the Mangrove Bayou and all of the environmental attributes, and if you look at this historic district, that's the cultural district. I mean, it really is a fabulous collection of individual things that are knitted just beautifully with this wonderful green ribbon that's going through it.

A mangrove shaded walkway with a sign that reads "Mangrove Bayou Walkway."
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
Mangrove shaded walkways are among the chief attractions at The Bay Park.

Any regrets when Stephanie you stepped aside?

Lafley: No. Our focus all along has been to help make The Bay sustainable in every way. And our focus has been on that sustainability: first conserving the land, environmental restoration, environmental sustainability, but also design sustainability, build-out sustainability, operational sustainability, financial sustainability. So this is just a baton passing. And the next team, you know, their objective is to help make The Bay sustainable in every way. And that's my hope. And I think that's the community’s and the city's expectation.

AG mentioned sustainability as a key objective. What are some of the biggest challenges the future holds for The Bay in that regard?

Crockatt: Well, I think the challenges the site faced in the very beginning, and some of it still exists today, but changing this parking lot into a park, there's just been an incredible amount of pavement that has affected water quality and runoff, storm surge and all of that. So we have been able to really take care of about 75 million gallons of water right now just in phase one that it's been able to go back into the bay in a cleaner capacity. And so we have, like you mentioned before with the large parking lot for the Van Weil, that is still a lot of pavement that is still tracking in and especially down 10th street, there is a huge amount of water that is still coming into the bay that is not cleaned or reclaimed. What I would hope this park is going to do is really serve as a great big kidney at some point, and it's going to be filtering this water into the bay, and that is something to be incredibly proud of.

What’s it like to be CEO of an organization that responsible for something designed to last forever?

Crockatt: It's all grounded in stewardship, good stewardship. It's grounded in sustainability. I know that there's a huge charge here to be sustainable in every way, and that means operationally, environmentally and financially. So in coming into this position with my background, I was really focused on historic properties. They've been designed generations prior, so I got to see what that looked like as something that had lasted for over 150 years, and I can only imagine how beautiful and wonderful this property will be in 150 years and it's being done right. It's being done thoughtfully it, doing it in phases is absolutely the right way to go, and so this is going to grow. It's going to be a memory maker, and it will be hopefully a really amazing place in everyone's heart as the generations go by.

A drainage feature is spotlighted with a light blue sign that explains the purpose and workings of a baffle box.
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
Something as utilitarian as a drainage feature is spotlighted with a sign that explains the purpose and workings of a baffle box.

What's your favorite part of the park?

Lafley: Ooh, that's a really good question. My favorite times in the park are first thing in the morning when the sun's coming up, and sunset. I mean, where can you get 300-plus sunsets like the ones we get over Sarasota Bay? My favorite place in the park is probably on the bridge. The walking bridge, the Bayou Walkway. It's so peaceful there. And talk about a view, if you look west through that mangrove, across that bayou, into that opening into Sarasota Bay, it's incredible.

Crockatt: I really love the mangrove walk and I'm sure everybody says that unless you're probably 5years old and then you probably like the playground, but I love the mangrove walk. I love the features that have been put in there as far as the seating, the swings, just the way that you can connect with nature in a very quiet and passive way, so it's therapeutic and it's amazing to know that you're in the heart of an urban fabric when you're in that part of the park because it doesn't feel like you're in an urban environment, and I think that is really something special that we've captured.

A small metal bridge.
Eric Garwood
/
Community News Collaborative
A small bridge leads to the park’s kayak launch.

Eric Garwood is the executive editor of the Community News Collaborative. Reach him at ericgarwood@cncfl.org

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