Longboat Key’s marriage with Ringling inches ahead

Rendering of park the Town will create as funds for the Ace center are raised.


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In a contentious meeting wherein Mayor George Spoll was called “highly negative” by former Mayor Jim Brown, a Memorandum of Understanding that allows a joint project between the Ringling College of Art & Design and the Town of Longboat Key moved forward.

The project has been years in the making. The plan is to build an Arts, Cultural and Education (ACE) Center on property the town acquired and the former Amore Restaurant is now being demolished.

The idea is for the future Center to serve as a gathering place and a hub for the Longboat community. Art, education and a multitude of activities are all part of the programming and in part will help replace some of the role that the now defunct Art Center in the Village, which was owned and operated by the Ringling, provided for the community.

The issue of the failure and closing of the Art Center in the north end, was a source of question and concern for Vice Mayor Ed Zunz.

The Art Center operated on the north end for decades before it was acquired by the Ringling approximately 10 years ago.

“I’m misunderstood and misrepresented,” said Zunz.

Zunz elaborated, “Ringling was not able to rescue the Art Center and eventually closed the door. They came in, took over, closed doors and cashed it in. I just would like an explanation. Why do we want so much not to learn facts? We have an obligation,” said Zunz.

Zunz raised several other questions including whether the Ringling was going to compete with the existing Education Center at the Center Shops.

“Maybe they will both fail,” said Zunz.

Zunz said he had spoken with Education Center Director Susan Goldfarb and he was told there was no existing agreement between the Education Center and Ringling in the future operation of the ACE Center.

“I’m not negative, I just want information. We’re moving too fast,” said Zunz.

Commissioner Mike Haycock had a different take.

“Trust is earned by behavior. My observation is that you (Zunz) don’t trust them (Ringling). I do trust them,” said Haycock.

To this remark, Zunz exclaimed, “I don’t distrust them!”

Haycock continued and said that his observation of what Zunz said was he was not trusting at this point. Haycock reiterated that what he knows of Ringling and of their worldwide acclaim, the programming they have put in place in the Sarasota community, and many other considerations, made him not only trust the Ringling organization but believe that the commission and town was at the right stage in the process to approve the Memorandum of Agreement, which forms the foundation for the project to move forward.

Echoing Zunz, Mayor George Spoll explained to the commission that the history with the Ringling running the Art Center in the Village was not a good relationship for some residents who used the Center.

“The past is hard to remove. There is a very strong opinion by a lot of folks on this key that throws a shadow on this relationship. There is an undercurrent of distrust on this island,” Spoll said. He then cited a letter from former Commissioner Pat Zunz questioning why the town instead of moving forward with a Town Center was agreeing to develop another Ringling facility.

Spoll also pointed out that the Ringling had not been present at any of the meetings to discuss the Memorandum of Understanding.

“I’m disappointed on the three sessions we’ve had discussing this MOU that Ringling has not been here. Why do they think they can make this function when they couldn’t make the Arts Center function? We have never really had that out. What’s in this for Ringling? Are they attempting to make a campus out here? What’s their level of commitment? There’s something other than the words, it’s the willingness and the trust,” said Spoll.

Commissioner Jack Daly said the commission has had plenty of time to raise fundamental questions, and that everything he had heard has been positive regarding the Ringling.

“Maybe we should have one more meeting with the heavy hitters to see if we should fish or cut bait,” said Daly.

At issue is the need for the Town Commission to move forward with and eventually approve a Memorandum of Understanding. At the workshop meeting, the Memorandum of Understanding was on the agenda and it spelled out the fundamental roles the two organizations – the Town of Longboat Key and the Ringling – will play in the development of the ACE Center. The Town’s role is to provide the land as well as some of the fundamental site work such as clearing, grading and demolishing the property, as well as bringing utilities to the site. The Ringling will have the primary responsibility of managing the operations of the Center once it is built.

Fundamental to the entire endeavor is where the money will come from, which is anticipated to be about $11 million, to finance the Center’s construction. That money will come from private donations and fundraising efforts spearheaded by both Ringling and the Longboat Key Community Foundation. The need for an approved Memorandum of Understanding is fundamental to allowing the two organizations to start the fundraising process.

Former Mayor Jim Brown is serving two roles in the development of the Center. On one hand, he has been advising the commission as to the scale and scope and viability of the project. On the other hand, he is part of the Longboat Community Foundation and will help in the fundraising. He spoke at the meeting:

“It’s pretty obvious the Mayor and Vice Mayor are negative about this thing. You’ve nitpicked this and micromanaged the contract. The Ringling has a very good reputation and it tried on Longboat Key on the north end and he (Ringling President Larry Thompson) got shot down. The Village fights everything. George (Spoll), you are acting like a bully up here. Seriously. Watch the movie. You are the leader of this group. I would hope you take consensus who is in favor of continuing with Ringling and who is not. If we are not going to move forward we need to know now. We can’t fundraise the way this commission is undecided,” said Brown.

Spoll replied, “For the record, I am very much in favor for a project to be built. But there is an undying problem on the key. We need to go forward with our eyes open.”

Daly said, “To clear the air, I think we need to know if we have consensus to go forward with Ringling on this project.”

At this point, Community Foundation President Jeff Mayers came to the podium and said he appreciated the “spirited” conversation.

“From a fundraising perspective, the longer we push this down the road, it is making this so much more difficult to raise funds. I feel I have to tell them to put the effort on hold. The longer we delay this, it hurts our credibility. Unanimous support will create fundraising,” said Mayers.

Commissioner Ken Schneier asked for consensus to bring the Memorandum of Understanding be brought to the May regular meeting for a formal vote. All of the commissioners raised their hand except Zunz.

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