Year in Review – Ringling College cancels Town Center cooperative

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

The 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 building.

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 a town commission workshop 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 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.

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 several meetings questioning many aspects of the relationship the Town was endeavoring to 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.

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. “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.

“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 the development of the site into a park.

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