Longboat should partner with Ringling Circus next time around

Editor & Publisher

Longboat Key tried to partner with the wrong Ringling entity — the College of Art and Design.

The sad news is we are the only community that has ever been officially “dumped” by the Ringling College of Art & Design.

To force the metaphor, we were marrying into a good family but two Commissioners: Vice Mayor Ed Zunz and Mayor George Spoll — added so many words of vitriol and disdain for the project and partnership that we were left at the alter.


Finding our center

The Town worked for years fashioning and refining a plan to build a community Center. It evolved from one of the Commission’s rare instances of long-range planning.

Previous commissions hired the Urban Land Institute and one of the findings everyone agreed on was Longboat needs a center, a hub where the community congregates. An Arts, Culture and Community Center was to be that hub.

First, it was to be built at Bayfront Park and then it was decided that we should acquire land and build it in what we like to call a “Town Center” location just east of Publix.

Next, we spent about $4 million acquiring the Amore restaurant and the adjacent strip of land. We paid $4 million for two properties that sat like a swamp on the real estate market. We essentially bought the brownfields of Longboat Key.

Then the cycle of history seemed to be ebbing in our community’s favor. Ringling partnered with the Town and agreed to develop the programming, manage the center and assist in the fundraising.

The Ringling and the Longboat Key Community Foundation were ready to start raising funds for the entire project — minus the cost of the land  — from private and philanthropic funds.

Keep I mind that every commission had worked toward the goal over the past decade. Every past commission supported the idea and the current Commission voted to partner with Ringling, agreed to scale the plan back from $18 million to $11 million, and agreed on the roles of the parties.


Our Toxic Shock Syndrome

And then, Spoiler Alert: Two Commissioners, to borrow a phrase from pop psychology, derailed the entire plan and betrayed the entire community with their “toxic” leadership style.

At the home stretch — when the final Memorandum of Understanding between the Town and Ringling was to be finalized and in the days and weeks leading to that act which would allow the Foundation and Ringling to go ahead and fundraise — both Zunz and Spoll used all of their time at the dais to question Ringling  and its motives. They demanded explanations for what they said was Ringling’s failing at the north-end Art Center years ago, and then engaged in endless badgering about future programming and accusations that there was a lack of trust by many in the community for Ringling.

It was like a bad cop-bad cop interrogation style. As Zunz was questioning, Spoll kept insinuating there are trust issues. He even used the old anecdotal evidence technique saying there are “people with lingering questions and trust issues.”

And then, as if this was anything other than an a priori agenda do destroy the plan, Spoll cited a letter questioning the plan with Ringling from none other than Ed Zunz’s wife, former Commissioner Pat Zunz.

Here is just a taste of the rhetoric from the meeting prior to Ringling walking away from the Town:

Zunz: “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 would like an explanation.”

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

“Maybe they will both fail,” said Zunz. “…We’re moving too fast,” he added.

Echoing Zunz, Mayor George Spoll said, “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.

Spoll then cited the letter from former Commissioner Pat Zunz questioning why the town, instead of moving forward with a Town Center of its own, was agreeing to develop another Ringling facility.

Spoll also pointed out that the Ringling had not been present 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.


The contour of nothingness

And then it ended. Years of planning, the formation of the Foundation and its commitment to fundraise the center, and fact that the center would be built without tax dollars and would serve the community without a tax burden all vaporized. Ringling and its President, Larry Thompson, simply said it could no longer be successful due to the sheer negativity and the fact that fundraising is predicated on support, a vision , a noble goal and true leadership and direction.

We should fault the Mayor and Vice Mayor for their late-game torpedoing of the project. It suffered from death by a thousand little lashes.

The word on the street is the Ringling is willing to still work with Longboat Key, but wants to wait until Spoll and Zunz are off the Commission. I do not blame Ringling.

The sadder fact is the Mayor and Vice Mayor failed us in their leadership.

Once the Commission and community reach a consensus on what they want, in this case the center with Ringling, it is the Mayor’s job — especially the Mayor — to represent the will of the Commission and the community. His job is to lead and help implement the agreed-upon consensus and represent us as a leader. We all know Spoll knows how to push for something when its what he wants.

Instead, Spoll did just the opposite. He used his position as a chisel to break up what was already cemented in place.. He ignored the community will, ignored his fellow Commissioners decision-making and squandered an opportunity for our Town.

Now we have the most expensive parcel that nobody wanted to buy when it was on the real state market. We are going to use it as passive open space — as if we have any other choice.

Not to worry, the Commission, led by Zunz and Spoll, will be back at the drawing board crayon in hand this fall to start anew.


Embrace our Cirque du Spolle

Perhaps we tried to partner with the wrong Ringling entity — the College of Art and Design. After our performance on this issue, the Ringling Bros. Circus might make more sense.

After all, we do not have to build anything, we already have our very own Big Top called Town Hall where all of this debacle and drama and showmanship can be seen first hand.

Think of it as Longboat’ s never-ending Cirque du Spolle.

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1 Response for “Longboat should partner with Ringling Circus next time around”

  1. Gene Jaleski says:

    I have been questioning the entire concept of yet another multi-million dollar town project based on nothing and without any demonstration of the taxpayers wanting a cultural center that may only offer third rate activities at a huge cost to the taxpayers. We a.ready have enough parks that are mostly unfrequented. Where are the millions in private funding that our eager community has not donated? Why should property owners have to support an edifice to the glory of Ringling, only to provide a venue for a monthly cocktail party during season. That is what ended up being the once vibrant community art center after it was allowed to ge removed from the community trust by a sad commission. Votes have consequences.

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