County commissioners questioned whether the project could survive without government help, and signing on to a redevelopment effort within the city of Sarasota.

SARASOTA COUNTY — An update on the city of Sarasota’s pricey bayfront redevelopment project by its planners was met with skepticism Wednesday from some Sarasota County commissioners, who questioned the project’s long-term self-sustainability and expressed reservations about how much money the county should ultimately commit to  Sarasota’s ambitious endeavor.

Members of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, which is spearheading the more than $300 million redevelopment project — known as The Bay — described to the County Commission how the group plans to transform the predominantly paved parking lot on Sarasota Bay. Proposed features include an open green space with several pedestrian bridges, a relocated boat ramp, waterfront promenade, one-acre event lawn, a 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot casual restaurant, smaller food kiosks, a bait and tackle shop, new performing arts center, children’s play space, botanical gardens and a cultural district.

While county commissioners applauded the project and its expected regional impact, and emphasized that helping it progress is a top county priority, Commissioner Mike Moran expressed skepticism over whether the project could succeed without government subsidies. Several other board members questioned how much money the county should allocate for a project outside of its jurisdiction.

“There is nothing in our financial projections that has said that shortfalls are going to be filled by the city or the county government, and we are looking to memberships, friends of the bay, we’re looking for corporate sponsorships, we’re looking for philanthropy to make sure that we’re not selling something to the community that is going to be anything but an asset,” Cathy Layton, chairwoman of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, told Moran. “We are not looking to create any liabilities.”

While the county wants the 53-acre project to flourish and has offered to help while keeping its taxpayers in mind, County Commission Chairman Charles Hines said he is troubled with the idea of giving significant aid to a project outside the county. His hesitance has been reinforced because the Sarasota City Commission hasn't been unanimous on key votes to tear down the vacant G.WIZ building to make way for the first phase of the project, and held off signing a preliminary outline on how the planning organization would transition and operate as a park conservancy to run the project for decades to come, he said.

“What I’m struggling with is what several commissioners have already said: this really isn’t our project," Hines said. "But for this project to work, the county has to be involved in it. Period. So, we need to be engaged earlier, meaning now. And you need to make it easy for us. And the message coming from the city is not easy.”

“The message is that they’re not committed yet,” Hines added.

The City Commission last month pumped the brakes on approving a term sheet that provided an outline for how a park conservancy would raise money, implement and operate the highly anticipated project after it faced community opposition. The City Commission is set to consider a final contract on Monday. Also, a majority of the City Commission has voted to demolish the former Selby Library-turned-vacant-children's museum, known as G.WIZ, but Vice Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch has been a vocal proponent for sparing the long-abandoned building from the wrecking ball. The City Commission on Saturday will hear an appeal to a demolition permit issued by the city in December.

Commissioner Nancy Detert echoed Hines’ sentiment.

“I going to presume that we had this wonderful presentation because you’re going to expect a contribution from the county, and my problem with it is, it’s not our property,” Detert said.

Bill Waddill, managing director of the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization, told the County Commission his group is ready to build the project's first phase, which will be funded mostly by private donations. He anticipates the rest of the project, to be built over more than a decade, will be funded with private donations and public funds, including potential grants from the state. The first phase consists of a recreational pier on the south end and a pedestrian bridge over Tamiami Trail, which could take three to four years to build and cost approximately $10 million to $20 million. Part of the first phase also includes open space for events, outdoor movies and art displays and would take a year to build at a cost of $3 million to $4 million.

Waddill has said a possible funding source is tax-increment financing, or TIF, as one way to pay for the project. TIF, which is not a new tax, allows a city to divert the increased property tax revenue generated by improvements in a specific area to be plowed back into the area. In order for the city to implement TIF, the county must first sign off on it. The county last May authorized its staff to engage in conversations with Waddill about using TIF to help pay for The Bay project, determine how long the funds would be diverted and hash out how big of a portion of property tax revenues would be used. The county and city used tax increment financing as part of its long-term downtown revitalization program.

Commissioner Al Maio, however, said he is hesitant to enter into a long-term TIF agreement with the city. The two jurisdictions only recently settled a feud about a final payment to a the joint Community Redevelopment Fund they started together. Maio wants to avoid another potential fight with the city, he said.

“I can’t imagine me voting for a 30-year TIF,” Maio said. “I can’t imagine me voting for anything longer than 20 years.”