John Romano: Sarasota breaks from rezonings to consider Wallenda's death-defying feats

For the most part, these local city government meetings are all the same. Someone over here on the left needs a zoning variance. Someone on the right requests a building permit.

Someone in the front row asks permission for a death-defying, high-wire circus act constructed above a highway that cuts through the heart of downtown.

Routine stuff like that.

And so it was that the Sarasota City Commission had to ponder a petition from Nik Wallenda this week to decide whether to allow him to walk on a wire 200 feet in the air without a harness or a net across a busy street at 10:30 next Tuesday morning.

This led to such awkward moments as the city attorney discussing the potential liability in case of an, um, incident.

"It might not only be a liability to Mr. Wallenda or, forgive me for saying this, for your estate, but to third parties as well,'' said City Attorney Robert Fournier.

Taking no offense to the suggestion he might not be around for a potential lawsuit, Wallenda pointed out he has a $20 million insurance policy with far-ranging coverage.

"Everything from tripping over a cable to (claiming) mental distress if someone were to see me fall,'' Wallenda said.

Hard to argue with that kind of estate planning.

And so, at that point, the room seemed to agree the event would be great publicity for Sarasota. And no one was complaining about the city paying an extra $8,000 or so in law enforcement for crowd control and the temporary shutdown of U.S. 41.

That meant the lone issue was the lack of a tether.

City Manager Tom Barwin seemed to think a tether would be prudent.

"I'm the professional paranoid,'' Barwin would say the next day.

Wallenda insisted it was unnecessary.

"This is my family's history,'' Wallenda told me on the phone. "This is the way we work. This is the way I was raised.''

Wallenda wore a tether for the first time last summer when he traversed Niagara Falls, but that was at the insistence of the television network that was bankrolling his performance.

The tether, he said, feels unnatural. In some ways, it might even be more dangerous because the tether is attached to the high wire and could trip him up. He points out that a great uncle was performing once with a net and fell. He hit the net safely, but was killed when he bounced out and hit the ground.

"You never know what can happen,'' Wallenda said. "That's part of what we do.''

Wallenda, who is planning a walk across the Grand Canyon this summer, says he wants to attract attention to the beauty of his hometown with his waterfront walk next week. It also helps that he has a three-week gig at Circus Sarasota beginning on Friday.

In the end, the city commissioners agreed to let Wallenda perform without the tether. The state Department of Transportation still has to sign off on the closing of U.S. 41, but Barwin did not anticipate that would be a problem.

All that's left is the lawyers agreeing on indemnity paperwork and the rigging of a wire from a bayfront crane to a condo 600 feet away. That, Wallenda, said, is the hard part.

"To me, the walk is the dream,'' he said. "My great-grandfather used to say, 'Life is on the wire. Everything else is just waiting.' ''

John Romano: Sarasota breaks from rezonings to consider Wallenda's death-defying feats 01/23/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 7:12pm]

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