Michael Welly sat in the chair, his head covered in electrodes, as 25 top local executives read his mind.
It was 2010 at one of Ringling College of Art and Design’s first corporate creativity retreats.
Jane Buckman, executive director of the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design, needed a subject who would agree to let Creative Mindflow founder George Pierson read his brainwaves in front of the audience.
She asked Welly, general manager of the Longboat Key Club and Resort, for one reason: She thought he would do it.
“I don’t think he knew what he was getting into,” Buckman said, laughing.
That Welly found himself sitting there shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Ask those who know him about his eight-and-a-half years at the Key Club and they’ll give you a list of the times he stepped up:
He’s been a board member of the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club, the YMCA Foundation and the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce. He has served on the Arts Center’s Creativity Council, sat through countless Town Hall meetings and welcomed community groups to the Key Club.
Buckman remembers Pierson being shocked by what he saw:
Welly’s theta waves — the brain waves associated with a creative, dreamlike state — were “off the charts”-wide.
“George was not expecting that,” Buckman said. “He was thinking he was a big executive in tourism and hospitality and wasn’t expecting to see what he saw. He was pleasantly surprised.”
Maybe the breadth of those theta waves shouldn’t have been so surprising. Love it or hate it, Welly’s creative vision for the Key Club has been at the center of debate throughout the town for four-and-a-half years.
Welly, along with about a dozen Key Club employees, many of them top management, were terminated last week in what Welly said was “anticipated” following Delray Beach-based Ocean Properties Ltd.’s announcement of plans to purchase the Key Club from the New York-based Loeb Partners Realty Group for an undisclosed price. The announcement came a week before the planned Oct. 31 date.
“Michael has made the Key Club a good sort of corporate citizen,” Mayor Jim Brown said. “He’s been involved in a lot of things going on all over the Key. I hope Ocean Properties continues that involvement.”
Developing a vision
Michael Welly arrived at the Key Club with a belief he has always had about the earliest towns:
They all had a church. And they all had a hotel.
To Welly, it shows that a community and its hotel each need the other to thrive.
It’s one reason why Welly has become an active part of every community in which he has lived. When he left Seattle, the mayor declared a “Michael Welly Day” in honor of Welly’s contributions.
What Welly didn’t arrive with was a vision.
“You don’t arrive with a vision so much as you develop a vision,” he said.
Welly arrived at the Key Club in March 2004, the day after Loeb dismissed Shannon Hotel Group owners W. Shane Eagan and A. Thomas Rasmussen, who had managed the Key Club since April 1990.
He had started working for Loeb the previous December, overseeing the company’s ownership transition of the Eagle Ridge Inn & Resort, in Galena, Ill., but was searching for an opportunity that would bring him either back to Florida or the West Coast.
The Cleveland native began his career in hospitality “very much by accident” shortly after he got out of the U.S. Army and saw a “help wanted” advertisement for sales representatives in the consumer products division of the former ITT, which was essentially 12 Holiday Inns. Soon after he got the job, the company merged with the Sheraton Group.
“It took me about a year to get serious about the job,” Welly said. “Like most people who work a lot of hours, there are a lot of ups and downs. If you can stand it for a year, you’re hooked.”
By 28, he was the youngest general manager in the Sheraton’s history. He worked in big cities such as Boston, Chicago and Seattle and small towns, too, such as Steamboat Springs, Colo., that would prepare him for the small town of Longboat Key.
Welly never stayed in one community for more than five years. When he looks back, he can’t pick his favorite. He likes to say that for each, he was in the right place at the right time.
Welly faced multiple challenges when he became manager of the Key Club.
About 70 of 220 owners had withdrawn their units from the Inn on the Beach rental program because they didn’t want to participate in a renovation project that cost up to $30,000 a unit.
The proposed $20 million Islandside Ca d’Coure plan was before the town and the subject of controversy.
Plus, he saw the property as needing major upgrades.
“Inn on the Beach had tremendous potential,” Welly said. “It had a Four Diamond rating, and I was concerned that members would lose that designation.”
Welly sensed a growing unhappiness with Key Club members.
He spent the first three months on the phone with Inn on the Beach owners, convincing all but six of them to re-enter the rental program.
He also eventually recommended withdrawing the Ca d’Coure plan to Loeb.
“I didn’t think much of it,” Welly said of the project. “To me, it was a very valuable property and we would only be gaining a few memberships, plus the income from selling the property. For me, it was a one-shot deal.”
When Welly finally unveiled his vision for the Key Club four years later, it was in the form of a $500 million project that he believed could put the Key Club on par with the Ocean Reef Club, in Key Largo, and the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
Welly anticipated major opposition from Islandside residents when he presented the plan, which was reduced to a $400 million plan, although he didn’t quite expect that it would take the Key Club through 23 public hearings before the Longboat Key Town Commission approved it in June 2010.
Former Key Club Public Relation Manager Katherine Songster said that Welly gave employees a sense of ownership in the project and never wavered.
“People would look to him to gauge the challenge of what was going on,” she said. “He always maintained strong leadership.”
Still, Welly didn’t wait around for the project to make changes happen at the Key Club.
Songster described how he empowered employees to make the Key Club better.
When managers approached him about creating a “green team” to reduce its environmental footprint, he told them to run with it. In the first year, the effort prevented more than 1 million pieces of Styrofoam and other items from entering landfills.
Welly invited many community groups into the club’s facilities.
When the Kiwanis Club of Longboat Key needed a new place to meet in 2009, Welly agreed to weekly breakfast meetings at the Key Club — and welcomed members to their first breakfast with steak and eggs.
Commissioner Terry Gans, a Key Club project supporter, said that Welly responded when he expressed concerns even about the tiniest things — issues he describes as too small to even mention.
“He always listened,” Gans said. “My feeling is that he did a lot to improve the club.”
The future of Welly’s vision for the Key Club is unclear.
In August, the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld a ruling granting a writ of certiorati to the project’s challengers, effectively killing the Islandside application.
Welly said he is optimistic about Ocean Properties’ vision for the Key Club.
“It’s probably not identical,” he said. “You don’t arrive with a vision, but with some thoughts in your head. I’m sure as they get more involved with the community, their vision will evolve, as mine did.”
Despite the Islandside project’s status, Welly still thinks of it as a success. He credits it for building momentum throughout the island for redevelopment.
“The island needs to evolve,” he said. “I think that enough people have that vision that they’ll make it happen.”
As for Welly?
He tied the knot with his longtime partner, Lynn Weddington, on a recent vacation to Bellagio, Italy.
The couple met nine years ago on a blind date through Welly’s former public relations director, who was Weddington’s neighbor.
Welly and Weddington plan to leave Longboat Key by year’s end and will most likely rent a home in the Los Angeles area before deciding where their careers will take them next.
They’re “mentally West Coast people,” so they should feel at home. That’s not to say he hasn’t come to love the island and its people.
“We’ve loved it completely and would have been fine staying here,” he said.
Welly figures, instead, that he’ll look back on Longboat Key the way he has come to remember most places. He’ll reflect on it. And think:
“That was the right place at the right time.”
Ocean Properties Ltd. announced in a prepared statement Tuesday afternoon that Jeff Mayers, who served as general manager of the Sawgrass Golf Resort & Spa in Ponte Vedra, will serve as the Key Club’s new general manager.
Mayers has served as chairman of the board of the St. John’s County Chamber of Commerce and as a member of the St. John’s County Tourism Development Council.