By Judith Keeler

When was the last time you enjoyed a bike ride or stroll on the Venetian Waterway Park along the Intracoastal Waterway? Spent the day at Caspersen Beach Park? Took a few moments of reflection to remember our community’s heroes at Patriots Park? Admired the artists’ murals on the side of the back wall of the Gondolier Sun building, or in Michael Biehl Park, or next to the Children’s Fountain at Centennial Park? Have you walked around the Arboretum at West Blalock Park learning about Florida trees? Did you go to the holiday tree lighting festivities there?

If you haven’t seen or done one or more of these things, you haven’t yet truly experienced the magic of the city of Venice. If you have, you may not know that all of them are the product of the vision and dedication of Venice Area Beautification, Inc., or VABI, and its public and private partners. This year, VABI celebrates 20 years of making the Venice area a more beautiful place to live, work and play, reflecting proudly on its past and looking enthusiastically to the future.

A Little History

Venice Area Beautification, Inc., was founded in 1990 by the Venice Chamber of Commerce. Its original purpose was to apply for and receive state highway beautification matching grant funds from the Florida Department of Transportation for beautification of U.S. 41, Business and Bypass, and to organize that effort. The plants, shrubs and trees you see along those roads are VABI’s first success story.

In 1993, a Sarasota County Charrette was organized to plan for the county’s future growth and development. The term “charrette” roughly translates into a “moving work in progress,” and in urban planning, describes the process by which designers consult with many diverse groups in order to involve all stakeholders in the development of a plan. This process in the city of Venice was spearheaded by the 2020 Visions of Venice Task Force of the Chamber of Commerce. The result was a list of thirteen priorities for the improvement of the city.

The number-one priority was the creation of a linear park along the Intracoastal Waterway. VABI was inspired both by the vision of a scenic recreational trail in the community and the collaborative concept that had spawned the idea for it. VABI’s effort brought together more than thirty-two public and private organizations and individuals contributing over five million dollars to the project. Over 100 volunteers were organized to provide the sweat equity that enhances the trail.

The city of Venice now has a ten-mile bike and walking trail along the Intracoastal Waterway, dotted with small parks and gardens. The Venetian Waterway Park runs from the Historic Train Depot to Shamrock Park on the east side of the ICW and from Hatchett Creek Bridge south to Caspersen Beach on the west side. The first one-mile segment was opened on November 6, 2000.

Catalysts for Change

Progress was not always easy, and VABI members, many of whom are still active in the organization today, gained valuable lessons from the experience. They learned to listen to all of the voices in the community. As one of the founding members of the organization said, “All things get done when they become other people’s ideas.” VABI knew that it needed to be accountable to its partners, produce results and learn from its mistakes.

But VABI isn’t just about the Venetian Waterway Park. In 2005, VABI established a Public Arts Committee and began a program to develop mural projects in the greater Venice area. You can see those murals in Michael Biehl Park located on the east side of the Venice Theatre, the historic mural on the back of the Venice Gondolier Sun, and the ceramic tile artwork at the children’s fountain at Centennial park. VABI’s Public Arts Committee has exciting plans for future artistic beautification projects.

VABI partnered with the 2002 Class of Leadership Sarasota County, which created Freedom Walk at Patriots Park, Venetia Bay, to honor first responders and military. The project was inspired by the tragedy of September 11, 2001. The Arboretum in West Blalock Park behind the Venice Community Center provides a venue for residents of the city to learn about and sponsor trees in memory or honor of someone, or just because they want to help VABI make Venice more beautiful.

Rallying the Troops

VABI’s Pepper Patrol is named for its mission to search out and destroy the notorious Brazilian Pepper Tree, along with other invasive and noxious weeds and bushes in the public areas of Venice. Another VABI-sponsored group is the Saturday Morning Walkabout, meeting at 8:00 a.m. every Saturday morning, weather permitting, at Volunteer Park behind the Gulf Coast Community Foundation of Venice parking lot to walk 2.5 miles. Word is that a couple met on the Walkabout and later married! The Venetian Waterway Park Trailblazers act as extra eyes of the Venice Police, Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, and Sarasota County Parks and Recreation officials to promote the safe use and enjoyment of the trails and parks.

Join in the Fun

The holiday tree lighting at West Blalock Park is another VABI-sponsored event. This year will be a celebration of VABI’s twenty years of service to the community. Taking place on December 11th, it’s a wonderful opportunity for the residents of the beautiful city of Venice to enjoy the holidays together.

For the past two years, VABI has also sponsored the Le Tour de Venice Poker Run, an active fund-raising event for the organization. The 2011 Poker Run will take place on Saturday, March 12th. Participants will have a choice of routes and start times to follow, collecting five card “poker” hands along the way, concluding with a lunch and prizes. Le Tour de Venice T-shirts have become a local prized possession.

The Beautification Continuum

VABI’s work to beautify and increase the accessibility and useability of its parks and open spaces continues.  In September 2010, the Venice City Council approved VABI’s concept for the improvement of John Nolen Park in the Historic Apartment District of the city, near City Hall. The improvements, to be funded through grants provided to VABI, include a much-needed asphalt walking path loop in the larger section of the park, additional trees for shade, one or two accessible curb-cuts for wheelchair access to the amenities, a horseshoe pit and bike rack.

The Venetian Waterway Park is one of the bigger pearls in the necklace of trails, including the Legacy Trail that connects the parks and waterways in Sarasota County. VABI’s vision is to build upon that spine of connectivity to ensure that all of the residents of the greater Venice area can enjoy its many parks, beaches, lakes, rivers and waterways. That vision is captured in the Ribbons of Venice project. VABI is working to make use of a series of trails, sidewalks, easements, even roadways, that will make our green spaces more accessible to all of the neighborhoods in our region.

The city of Venice is and should continue to be a destination city, regionally and nationally. VABI is working to ensure that our city’s history and green spaces are preserved and enhanced, and that our legacy is ensured.

VABI is a 501 (c ) (3) non-profit corporation. For more information, or to become involved in its activities, please call the VABI office at 941-207-8224.

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