Ringling leaves Longboat at Town Center altar

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The Ringling College of Art and Design has walked away from its plan to build an Arts, Culture & Education (ACE) Center project with the Town of Longboat Key.

The pre-construction agreement between Ringling and the Town was scheduled to be voted on by the Longboat Commission on May 6, but citing increasing negativity on the part of some commissioners, as well as questioning of the viability of the plan in an unscientific survey, Ringling President Larry Thompson pulled the plug last week.

“Unfortunately, this questioning of the desire for the Center, and even potential opposition to it, significantly hampers the potential for the success of the project at this time. This increasingly negative feedback that we have received has let us conclude that the raising of the philanthropic dollars needed to create this center is not probable at this time,” said Thompson.

The creation of the Center represented years of effort and millions of dollars in expenditure by previous town commissions. Former Mayor Jim Brown first spoke of creating a cultural and community center at Bayfront Park more than a decade ago. An Urban Land Institute (ULI) study as well as a previous commission concluded that such a center should be built as part of a Town Center creating a hub of activity for future generations of Longboaters.

The idea was that someday the existing Tennis Center, public library, surrounding houses of worship, Town Hall, Publix, restaurants as well as retail would all be interconnected and center around an Art, Cultural & Education facility.

That effort led to the Town buying more than four acres of property at a cost of more than $4 million, which includes the site of the former Amore Restaurant.

The plan was approved unanimously a year ago, but the last two commission meetings featured numerous rounds of questioning and attacks on the intent and operation of the planned facility as well as of Ringling.

Last month, Mayor George Spoll was characterized as “highly negative” toward the plan and Vice Mayor Ed Zunz also expressed numerous objections.

Following the announcement of Ringling’s withdrawal, former Longboat Key Mayor Terry Gans lamented the decision as “a tragic day.”

“Why would any institution, with many other projects on their plate, subject itself to what I see as a dishonest, ego-driven effort to characterize them as a bad actor? The old tactics of ‘I’ve heard from many people,’ unsupported claims, not accepting 7-0 votes to proceed, the spectacle of essentially the only negative witnesses in the over six years of public hearing being the usual suspects historically aligned with or related to the Mayor, the nitpicking, questioning filibustering on the part of the Vice Mayor to try to create a document no sane entity could sign, all were the bullets from this firing squad. The final blow was the self-admitted unscientific ‘poll’ by the Observer…” wrote Gans.

Gans continued to say that every commission until the current one, had supported the project and it did not spend $3.5 million to create a lawn and not a Center.

“Whatever the motivation of those who effectively killed the Town Center project, they will have to live with it. But, sadly, so will all of us,” stated Gans.

Vice Mayor Zunz took offense and in a letter said that Gans after six years on the commission, “should be able to recite the town’s civility policy in your sleep.”

Zunz wrote, “Your calling me ‘dishonest’ and ‘ego-driven’ was a blatant violation of our civility policy for which an apology is in order.”

Zunz said he always has been and remains a strong proponent of a Town Center, but felt that the public participation and several factors including addressing the seasonality and what services would be specifically provided were not detailed and that the process needed more vetting.

Zunz wrote that he felt the town was entitled to more information and ended a lengthy letter addressed to Gans in saying he was “ashamed for you, of all people, to violate our civility policy and falsely accuse me of dishonesty and ego-mania.”

Gans quickly responded with a letter of his own.

“Mr. Vice Mayor, you have a history of saying you support things seeming to do everything you can to derail or delay through endless mining of the minutia of documents and each word wherein. Simply put, you lose sight of the forest, and wander among the trees,” wrote Gans.

Gans also said he was attacking the actions of several members on the commission and that he did not single Zunz out and that if he felt that applied to him, “that is on you.”

Now that Ringling is out of the Town Center plan, commissioners will discuss what was previously an interim use, the proposed park-like setting that will follow the demolition of Amore.

Commissioner Ken Schneier wants to discuss what happened and how this commission got to the situation it is in.

“Many people have spent years getting us to the brink of a plan to develop an Art Center at the heart of the Town that would re-centralize the education, display, meeting, performance and other functions formerly conducted at the north end, together with other amenities to bring the various communities on our island together,” said Schneier.

Schneier in a letter to the Town Manager pointed out that every step of the way was in the public eye and the Ringling had agreed to assist the Longboat Key Foundation in raising all of the money through private donations necessary to construct the project. Ringling was also tasked with operating and managing the Center at no cost to the Town or its residents.

“We have squandered a huge opportunity on our island and diminished our own reputation by calling into question that of our partner. In the same week that the City of Sarasota embraced its future by endorsing the dynamic Bayfront Project, we have rejected our own. Let’s figure out how this happened and how to avoid such self-inflicted injuries going forward,” said Schneier.

The issue will be discussed at the Town Commission’s Regular Meeting on May 6 at 1 p.m. in Town Hall.

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