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Lack of control over prominent fairgrounds site irks Sarasota officials

County commissioners learn that as long as the 54-acre parcel near downtown hosts an agricultural fair, it can never reclaimed by the county.


County commissioners recently discussed the highest and best use of the fairgrounds site at 3000 Ringling Blvd.
County commissioners recently discussed the highest and best use of the fairgrounds site at 3000 Ringling Blvd.
Andrew Warfield
  • Manatee-Sarasota
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During its fall 2023 workshop, the Sarasota County Commission directed staff to study the highest and best use of the 54-acre fairgrounds property along Fruitville Road, and whether such higher and better use can even occur there.

At issue is that the county conveyed 14 acres in 1947 to the Sarasota County Agricultural Fair Association, plus 40 more acres in 1964, and unless the association fails to stage an agricultural fair there for two consecutive years, it will retain ownership in perpetuity. 

In addition to the fair, the site is used for events in Robarts Arena, county job fairs, emergency responder vehicle driver training and post-disaster staging for emergency utility restoration. 

None of that, in the commissioners’ view, is the highest and best use of prime property along the city’s eastern gateway 2.3 miles from downtown and 3.8 miles from Interstate 75.

Following the staff report delivered to commissioners by Director of Planning and Development Services Matt Osterhoudt during a June 4 meeting, commissioners are also resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do about it.

“If the property ceases to be used for such purposes, title shall revert to the county of Sarasota,” Osterhoudt read from his report. “Additionally, if the property is not used by grantee for (agricultural fair) purposes for a period of two successive years, such failure to be used said property shall automatically cause reversion to the grantor.”

That’s legalese for “no fair, no land.” The Association can partner with other organizations to improve the site — a 2019 flirtation with the Sarasota Orchestra is one such example — but is a challenge with the ever-present reverter clause.

A January 2024 appraisal valued the 40-acre parcel of the 54 total acres at $16 million, not including any structures such as the arena. 

It was a bitter pill for commissioners to swallow.

“It’s a little frustrating and disappointing to me simply because if you went out on the street and interviewed 100 people and asked ‘how do you feel about this parcel?’ I think an overwhelming majority would say it's probably not highest and best use,” said Commission Chairman Mike Moran. “The problem is the power and authority this board has, given your presentation, is frankly at zero. 

“This is one example when I don't think this board, I don't think any future board, I don't think any past board, should ever be able to put something in stone such as this.”

Commissioner Mark Smith added that even for one of its current uses, post-hurricane staging for utility vehicles, the site is inadequate.

“They're staging all the trucks there, but the buildings aren't strong enough to withstand a storm, so we could actually end up hurting our own or hurting FPL’s efforts,” Smith said. “We have an area that we use during emergencies that isn't up to snuff as far as being hardened enough to actually withstand a storm. 

"That's not our problem. It's not our property.”

This story originally appeared in the the Sarasota Observer, sister paper of the Business Observer.

 

author

Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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