Community hopes football fields in Sarasota County will be restored

The football fields off 17th Street hold a lot of history in Sarasota County. It's where the Ringling Redskins played for 60 years, and the athletic complex used to be the center of life for neighborhoods around it. 

"It takes me way back. I was one of the first black kids to play out here," Walter Gilbert, a past league president, said.

Gilbert said kids from different races from all over Sarasota came to the fields and learned how to play football. Fred Gilmore remembers the program that taught children more than football.

"Those were places that were safe environments that you could do things and learn to interact with other people and other kids," said Gilmore.

The league became a top-notch program, producing 28 future NFL drafts, but times have changed. After the program dissolved in 2020, the field and its buildings were left to age. 

"To see it fall apart like this is inexcusable," said Gilbert. "They should upgrade this, make it better, make it more modern for kids of today’s generation."

Sarasota County owns the field, but county officials said the league owned and maintained all buildings. By the time the league disbanded, the facilities had reached the end of their life span. 

In April 2021, the county approved a master program that would update parks over a three to seven-year period, including the 17th Street park and athletic complex. 

Community members want the county to restore the fields and facilities for the future, while honoring their past.

"I would love the county’s park and rec department to know what this field and facility has meant to the community for over 60 years," said Gilbert.

But Gilbert and others worry the county is focusing most of its energy and money on projects out East and in South County, that leave North Sarasota out.

"It's great what they are doing at Benderson park, it’s great what they are doing with the nature trail, but it's different dynamics," said Gilmore.

In a statement Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Director Nicole Rissler said:

"Sarasota County and the Sarasota Redskins have had a long history of partnership with the most recent agreement being approved in 2017, in which the league owned and maintained all the vertical structures including the concession and locker room building, restroom and office building, and announcer towers.

When the league ceased operations in 2020 and the agreement was terminated, all of the structures reverted back to Sarasota County and a full facility assessment was completed. It was determined those structures had reached end of life and have not been utilized or occupied since."