Shortly after being appointed to the Longboat Key Town Commission, Commissioner Terry Gans spent weeks educating himself on Longboat Key history and issues by reading 35 years of Longboat Observer archives.
As Gans will tell you, one of his key findings of that project was this: Throughout that three-and-a-half-decade history, the issues on Longboat Key haven’t changed much — if at all. Longboaters have always complained about development; the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort has almost always been involved in controversy; and town commissioners always manage to create whistling-teapot tempests for themselves (i.e. who’s serving on the Urban Land Institute committee).
We all know the cliche: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But an aberration to that bromide occurred last month when directors of the Longboat Key Public Interest Committee decided to dissolve the 27-year-old organization.
This is a historical change.
For nearly three decades, the Longboat Key Public Interest Committee was a community institution. As many longtime Longboaters know, “PIC,” as it became known, wielded a lot of political influential.
Its endorsement — or lack of one — for Town Commission elections often determined winners and losers. And for a time, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that many Longboaters would identify themselves to each other as either being a PIC backer or opponent. You were either anti-development and commercialism (pro-PIC) versus those who favored development (anti-PIC).
Through The Voice, PIC’s green-paper newsletter, Longboaters often waited to see how PIC would skewer — sometimes nastily — commissioners who disagreed with PIC’s positions. PIC held no pretenses about its feelings toward the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce — it despised it. And in its earliest years, it almost seemed as if PIC and the Longboat Observer were mortal enemies, with PIC decrying growth and the Longboat Observer supporting it.
In his book, “From Calusas to Condominiums,” Longboat Observer founder Ralph Hunter reported that in PIC’s articles of incorporation, the organization forbade anyone from becoming a PIC member if he “is a member of any chamber of commerce anywhere in the state of Florida.”
PIC also originally excluded anyone “who … owns, controls, or has any interest in … any business … in Sarasota or Manatee counties …”
PIC took obvious aim at the Longboat Observer in every issue of The Voice by reminding its members and readers that the purpose of PIC was “to publish the truth about the issues that confront our island … because of so much distortion of the truth on our Key.”
According to Hunter’s book, in 1991, in a deposition for a lawsuit involving the town, then Mayor Hart Wurzburg was asked why PIC was formed: “It was very simple,” Wurzburg answered, “because there was only one method of disseminating information on Longboat Key, and that was Ralph Hunter and The [Longboat] Observer, and to the best of my knowledge he didn’t tell the truth then and subsequently he hasn’t told the truth at any time that I know of since then … ”
The diametric philosophies and visions of PIC and this newspaper and chamber of commerce contributed to an awkwardness and chill that hung over town affairs for nearly two decades. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, when Ron Johnson and Joan Webster — members of PIC — became mayor successively that PIC’s strident and icey anti-development, anti-business, anti-tourism stance began thawing. Lo and behold, this new wave of PIC leadership finally realized that Longboat Key’s reputation for having the worst climate in the region for business and construction worked too well — and actually was hurting the island. Without enough steady tourism, businesses one after another shut down. Whitney Beach and Avenue of the Flowers became retail ghost towns.
To their credit, Johnson and Webster took steps to have PIC and chamber leaders actually talk to each other. To many longtime Longboaters’ surprise, there was detente.
Then the unthinkable. PIC’s new leaders and board members, among them Ann Roth, Gaele Barthold and Lenny Landau, actually began collaborating with the Longboat Observer as co-partners on community and candidate forums.
And talk about shockers: When the Longboat Key Club and Resort attempted to obtain approval for its proposed $400 million expansion and renovation, PIC’s board supported the project. And in the 2013 Town Commission elections, PIC endorsed three incumbents, each of whom embraces the belief Longboat Key needs more tourism and business.
The metamorphosis was complete.
Over the past eight years, we watched PIC evolve from being a pitbull against business and development to embracing a balance of business, tourism and residences — a position that virtually everyone on Longboat Key, including this newspaper, embraces. In effect, over time, it lost its initial raison d’etre.
To be sure, the old PIC and the old wars between PIC and its adversaries added spice to the life and conversations on Longboat Key. They made this newspaper more interesting to read.
But now, in PIC’s absence, there is more harmony. And that’s good for the town.
As we absorb PIC’s history, we can’t help but note its dissolution, to a great extent, reflects an admission that its early members’ philosophy is a failed philosophy.
It provides a great lesson for all communities: To block economic growth and development is to sentence yourself to economic stagnation and deterioration.
While, oddly enough, government regulations affecting political action committees brought PIC to its organizational end, its “anti-” philosophy ultimately brought about its demise. To their credit, PIC’s most recent leaders recognized that if stop growing, your community dies. We welcome PIC leaders to the other side — for seeing what’s best for the Key’s future is a balance of visitors, businesses and residents alike.
+ Why they call it ‘the club’
We have to agree with most everyone but the mayor. Longboat Key Mayor Jim Brown didn’t need to change the makeup of the Longboat Key Urban Land Institute Implementation Advisory Committee. That is, the one that had himself or his appointee, the chair of the planning and zoning board and five citizens. (See page 1A.)
It now has two commissioners, two planning board members, two holdovers from a previous ULI committee and three citizens — four Town Hall insiders.
This is exactly why so many Longboaters snort about Town Hall being a closed club — closed to ordinary taxpayers. Sure, Mr. Mayor, the insiders are “citizens,” too. But let’s hear some fresh points of view.
Marty Samowitz, a Longboat Key resident who died Friday night at age 99, is another great American tale, a life that should be held up to younger Americans of what our country and its people are all about — or, what we used to be about.
Samowitz was a self-made, successful entrepreneur and business owner-operator of the Marty’s Shoes retail chain; devoted to his family; loyal friend; generous philanthropist; and a red-white-and-blue American patriot to the end.
On top of all of these attributes — which came from the choices he made and experiences in his life — Samowitz possessed a remarkably sharp mind and wit until his final days.
At his 99th birthday party, his body failing, Samowitz was as alert as ever, still an insatiable reader and conversant on every issue of the day, be it local, national or international.
At ages 97 and 98, he traded regular emails and phone calls with former Longboater Lynn Welly on all of the books and newspaper articles he devoured by the day. He was especially in tune then with presidential politics.
When the 2012 presidential election was nearing its apex, Samowitz was so passionate and fearful of four more years of Barack Obama, Samowitz called the Longboat Observer to purchase a full-page ad. He told readers, sincerely: “I survived the Great Depression and the invasion of Iwo Jima in World War II … I worry for you, your children and your grandchildren, not to mention my own!”
He signed the letter: “God bless America. Disillusioned and Disappointed. Marty Samowitz”
As Marty Samowitz looks down from above, let’s hope succeeding generations erase his disappointment and rekindle the can-do spirit that made him the man he was.