The best laid plans of mice and men

Guest Columnist

Commissioner Jack Duncan is now advocating a long-range 25-year plan for our community. I guess he is saying that we need to follow his plan if we ever want to see our community prosper again. Unfortunately, none of us will be around to see if he was right. As justification for his call for long-term planning, Commissioner Duncan states, “the town has to look no further than the current state of the island’s deterioration, in the form of aging shopping centers and foreclosed homes.”

I do not disagree with Commissioner Duncan that our residents and town government need to become more pro-active in maintaining all aspects of our community. We differ in tactics and strategies.

Commissioner Duncan uses the community center as a focal point in his discussion and appears to be advocating a community dialog, whereas Commissioner Jim Brown appears to feel that he and his fellow commissioners are the only people who need to be involved in both the design and the method of financing a community center.

I prefer Commissioner Duncan’s more inclusive approach. Commissioner Duncan raises the question if we even need a community center. A few weeks ago I proposed re-purposing unoccupied commercial property as a community center, both to test the waters for a need for a center, without committing the community to yet more bonds, and alleviating the glut of empty commercial buildings on the island. We could also have a community center up and running before the coming season. I do not see any downside to this idea.

It has now been 18 months since the current commission assumed power and assured our community that they would solve all the problems left unresolved by their predecessors. I believe the phrase “fix Town Hall” was used at one point. I do not see that anything has transpired since then. Actually, it looks like we have actually slipped further behind.

The Key Club expansion has experienced one setback after another during the 2.5 years since the KC hearings first began. I remember the town attorney saying that he and the town planning staff would resolve any lingering questions in a couple of weeks. That was long ago and the most recent missive from the town attorney, concerning referendums, portends of even longer delays.

I have always advocated a responsible rejuvenation of the Key Club since it is an attractive and classy part of our community. The KC helps us stand out as an affluent retirement community. Unfortunately, the Loeb group chose an uncompromising political solution that has become a statutory and legal quagmire, with no end in sight, in spite of the town attorney’s repeated assurances that everything will be OK any day now. The commission should have prevailed upon Loeb to come up with a viable project. They did not and a majority of the commissioners still press forward with their grand design for us all without paying any attention to the economic and legal realities that surround them.

Some of the actions by our commissioners, including what I believe to be unfortunate exchanges between commission members and residents who are experts in the area of land use, seem to be leading our town toward becoming a poster child for a possible future Florida Harris Act ordeal.

Commissioner Duncan is quite correct in his assessment that commercial property is deteriorating on Longboat and that more and more homes are coming onto the market. It would be nice to counter his appraisal with some good news. However, the longer our country sinks into economic decline, the more people will hit the wall and be forced to unload the economic burden of a second home that they only used a few months a year. This is an economic reality for a seasonal retirement community. No amount of long-range planning will alter the course of events.

Commissioner Duncan decries employing tactics where he feels long-range strategies are needed. I disagree. When the house is on fire it is not the time to look into pension plan alternatives with the firefighters union. We need to take more immediate measures to improve our community image and to attract the baby boomers to buy here instead of Anna Maria Island or The Villages in central Florida.

I have written several columns about what I believe we need to do to improve our market position and that does not include still more hand-picked committees of head-bobbers to rubber stamp the ideological beliefs of the current people in power. I wish the current people in power were more effective than they have been over the past 18 months. From failed referendum votes to a stalled Key Club project, to failing to look at the root cause of our failing commercial real estate, there’s a lot of smoke and a lot of rhetoric and little else.

The realities of the national and global economics cannot be solved by strategies, no matter how well meaning. No one knows what socio-economic conditions will prevail 20 years from now or even next year. We need to be nimble and seek solutions for tomorrow not after we are all dead and gone.

One place we need to start looking is in the area of retail real estate. Remember we have enough retail real estate to support a community of 75,000 people. We actually have fewer than 8,000 averaged over the year. If people want to have the commercial tail wag the dog, then we will need to tear down a lot of older two-story condominiums to make way for tall buildings that will house 75,000 people on a year-round basis. That most likely means tourists, since our current residents don’t stick around after April.

If we manage to get 75,000 people to stay on Longboat during the hot season, then we will have an economic base to support the present commercial real estate property, and I guarantee we will have terrific traffic jams every day. Of course, we will need new water, sewer and electric services along with a solution to the impediments of the Circle and Bradenton Beach. I already know people who prefer to live on Anna Maria rather than fight the traffic at the Cortez Road light in Bradenton Beach.

Short of accomplishing all the above, there is simply too much land on this island zoned commercial. If Publix does decide to fully develop their land at Avenue of the Flowers, that will draw customers away from the Centre Shops and any future for the new mega Whitney Beach Plaza. One can only divide a pie so many ways before everyone goes hungry.

We need good news now. We need a community center now, not years from now. A lot of delay and strife will occur if the commissioners attempt to force an unpopular tax burden on the voters, before we even know if the people will support a community center. Keep in mind that the proposed town budget shows a deep cut in funding for recreational activities. Let’s use common sense not theoretical strategies, and let’s get moving and get something accomplished. There has been too much posturing and not enough actual improvements over the past 18 months.

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