Longboat debates re-hatching Town Center with Ringling

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Emotions collided at last week’s Longboat Key Town Commission meeting when the board grappled with how it will move forward with a Town Center plan now that Ringling has backed out.

Ringling College of Art & Design President Larry Thompson announced a week ago that the Ringling no longer was going to join forces with the Longboat Key in developing an Arts, Cultural and Education Center on four acres of town land just east of Publix.

That plan had been in the works for years as a cornerstone to a future Longboat Town Center concept and Ringling was going to help raise about $11 million along with the Longboat Community Foundation to pay for the facility.

Ringling said that it pulled the plug because of the negativity the project was receiving from some of the town commissioners as well as following an opinion survey.

At the town commission workshop last week, Mayor George Spoll foreshadowed the discussion, “It’s item 13 on the agenda. I hope that’s not an unlucky number.”

The agenda item started innocently enough with Town Manager Tom Harmer telling the commission that he and staff were moving forward with Sarasota County and in creating a park like setting on the property. He said the plan is not complicated, there will be some fill dirt and sod and general cleaning up of the site to make it available for town functions and outdoor events.

After this update, Commissioner Ken Schneier decried the most recent loss of the Ringling relationship.

“A key piece of our future is a Town Center. We were about to take a major step toward that goal. No taxpayer expense was contemplated. Our Town Center plan was a no brainer of all time. We’ve lost their skills in fundraising, creating and operating such a center, and I suggest we examine what occurred and do something heroic to get it back. I think we should forcefully embrace the plan with Ringling and mend fences. The boat has left the dock, but it’s still in the harbor,” said Schneier.

Fellow Commissioner Jack Daly agreed and said the project was to be a cornerstone of the Town Center.

“I view this as a significant major failure of our commission in representing residents’ interests,” said Daly.

It was Spoll and Vice Mayor Ed Zunz who together on the commission grew critical during the past two meetings questioning many aspects of the relationship the Town was endeavoring the undertake with Ringling.

The two questioned the programming of the organization, how and why its involvement with the Art Center on the north end of Longboat Key failed, as well as how it would operate or coexist with the current Longboat Key Education Center.

These questions and criticisms created discord in what until recently had been unanimously supported by previous commissions.

Daly said that Ringling was the best, if not the only, party that could really undertake the partnership in running such a facility with the town.

“I cannot blame Ringling for its decision after the dialogue at our meetings,” said Daly.

Daly suggested the Town reinstate its partnership and pursue repairing the relationship. He sought consensus at the meeting to that end.

At that point, Mayor Spoll told Daly and Schneier that both were making comments that should come up under commissioner comments and were not part of the published agenda.

Schneier disagreed and said the agenda item was about what the commission should do going forward relative to the town center plan.

Next, Vice Mayor Zunz said he agreed with 90 percent of what was just said by Daly and Schneier but then went on to explain that the commission really needed to know why Ringling failed on the north end with the Art Center before moving forward in a new partnership. He also said that it was necessary to know how the Education Center would operate with Ringling and said there were major things in the document that needed discussion.

“I don’t take any responsibility for Ringling turning away,” said Zunz, “I believe responsibility belongs someplace else.”

Commissioner Irwin Pastor said it was a big mistake by the commission and that the commission’s actions ruined the chance for Ringling and the Community Foundation to successfully fundraise.

“All of the risk was on Ringling for the fundraising and the success of the operation. They had everything to lose and we as a Town were not involved with that part of the equation,” said Pastor.

Pastor added that the commission existed to deliver what voters want and not simply allow personal opinion to get in the way.

“We are here and elected to deliver deliverables to the citizens,” said Pastor.

Zunz fought back at these sentiments.

“This is not a Firehouse; this is an extra,” said Zunz.

Commissioner Mike Haycock said he disagreed adamantly with how the project with Ringling was discussed and managed.

“When you start to question and debate details on a project, you discredit the project and the partner. I think as a group we drove Ringling away with our behavior over the past four months,” said Haycock.

Daly agreed, “No matter how you cut it, the dialogue from this dais intervened and caused Ringling to leave. I haven’t heard any suggestion that there would be a better partner than Ringling.”

The only consensus reached was to have Harmer continue in the development of the site into a park and to place on the agenda at the next workshop meeting the overall issue of what to do next in developing a Town Center.

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