Our view: The public interest

 

Our view: The public interest

 

Date: January 27, 2010
by: Observer staff

 
 

The public interest

Is it in the public interest?

After Longboat Key’s town commissioners have absorbed all of the excruciating legalese — over departures, comprehensive plans, floor-coverage ratios, traffic studies, 5% non-residential allowances and the Tylenol-inducing questioning of lawyer Robert Lincoln — their vote will be crystallized in that one question.

Will the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s proposed $400 million renovation-and-expansion plan be in the public interest?

In actuality, the vote is much more profound.

The commissioners’ vote will be a statement written into Longboat Key’s history, the legacy of who we were — as a people bonded together on this island, as Floridians and as Americans.

That may sound corny, perhaps melodramatic. But if you step back and take in the wider context, it is true.
The commissioners’ vote on the Key Club is much, much more than whether to allow a new hotel, new condos and a small conference center.

Think of the “no” vote, a rejection of the Key Club Associates’ plans. Think of the ripples that will wash out in wider waves.

Start in the center with the Key Club. The general partners who represent the stockholders of the Key Club told us quite explicitly if their project is rejected, or if the demands and concessions become so great as to eliminate the economic incentives to proceed, they will change strategy. Rather than re-invest all of the club’s profits back into the property to maintain its high standards — and make it even better — the shareholders will likely manage it for cash flow. That means dividends to shareholders likely will take priority over reinvestment. And this scenario, in our judgment, will lead to a sale.

Put yourself in the shoes of the owners. If you are unable to reinvest and grow the asset to generate more long-term value and profitability, you’d likely make the obvious next choice: Sell it to get the highest value; sell it before it deteriorates.

Now think of the potential buyers. You know the saying: The devil you know is better than the one you don’t. Not that Loeb Realty Partners is the devil. To the contrary, 1,000 times 1,000. But we know if one of the major corporate chains takes over the Key Club, the new owners will never rise to the level of Key Club Associates in its extraordinarily generous support of Longboat Key and Greater Sarasota.

Indeed, if you asked every local charitable and community organization and individuals who have felt the benevolence of the Key Club over the past 15 years to come forward, all 11 miles of Gulf of Mexico Drive would not be able to support the bus loads traffic.

This is fact: No other business on Longboat Key in the town’s 55-year history has given more back to its community than the Longboat Key Club and Resort.

The next ripples: What message will rejection of Key Club’s proposal send to all future investors? And we’re not talking only of potential investors in the Longboat Key Club and Resort. Think of the entire island.

Knowing what the Key Club expended — two years and $4 million — just to get to a Town Commission vote, few investors would entertain the idea of approaching a similar scenario at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort. What investors would entertain a complete redevelopment of Whitney Beach Plaza? And don’t kid yourself, Publix Super Markets Inc. has been watching this process closely. You can be sure its senior executives and top stockholders (some of whom reside on Longboat Key) will rethink and question the wisdom of even attempting to redevelop the Avenue of the Flowers if the Key Club project is rejected — or, for that matter, held up in litigation.

Another ripple: The word will spread. Most of the experts who testified on behalf of the Key Club are Floridians. And they have networks of clients who develop and redevelop and manage resort properties all over Florida, the United States and the world. They will spread the word: Don’t go to Longboat Key. Investment capital will avoid us like the plague.

Another ripple: As tourism expert Peter Yessawich told the town twice, tourists avoid tired, aging properties. Look at North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. With fewer or no tourists, the pool of real-estate buyers will shrink in step. Falling demand equates to falling values.

Another ripple: If the Key Club project is rejected, look for a serious turn in attitude on Longboat Key. A gray cloud will hang over the psyche of residents. At restaurants (what few are left), they’ll complain — about the commissioners who destroyed the town’s future or about the declining level of service at the restaurants, the aging Publix store and the declining conditions on the Key Club golf courses. Longboaters will walk with gray faces and stooped shoulders. An air of optimism will disappear. Paradise lost.

That is not who we are. When you look at the wider context, Americans … Floridians … and Longboaters are not retrenchers. We’ve always been strivers, reaching and pushing ourselves for new heights, new levels of better. We want the overall trendline of life to continue heading up and to the right. Longboaters don’t come here to shut their doors, hide in the dark and watch life fade.

In fact, three times already this week, friends have chastised us for making a Town Commission candidate’s 84 years of age an issue in this week’s election. Age is not an issue here, they told us. Longboaters look forward. This is who we are.

Approval of the Key Club project would be a defining statement that we will continue to be a people and community moving forward. And a community that adjusts.

Longboat Key adjusted in the late 1970s and early 1980s. What town commissioners adopted then set the stage for Longboat today. And with the Key Club project, the Town Commission is on the precipice of setting the stage for tomorrow.

Is the Key Club project in the public interest? Really, there’s no debate.

+ Lessons learned
If we learn anything from this costly, laborious approval process for the Longboat Key Club, it should be that what worked before will not work in the future.

Longboat Key Club attorney John Patterson likes to say the entire process over the past two years has been a stress test on a bridge. And that test has exposed Longboat Key’s governmental weaknesses, namely, the town’s development and zoning code and comprehensive plan.

The Key Club process exposed that the town — if it wants to move forward — must revise its codes to the times.

The current codes were written for when Longboat Key was growing up and being built. The codes going forward must address a new era — redevelopment, how to embrace it and how to avoid the costly time-consuming confrontation that we have experienced the past two years.

To be sure, this should be a priority of the next Town Commissions.

BOX
Erosion is job one
Beach erosion will always be Longboat Key’s 100-year war. And every now and then it flares up more so than in other years. Today, we’re at another peak.

Some residents living on the extreme northwest end of the Key might even term this flare-up as a crisis. The accompanying photo certainly makes it seem so. What’s more, the town dumped 600 cubic yards of sand shortly before Christmas in that troubled North Shore Road area. About half of it already is gone.

Longboat Key Public Works
Director Juan Florensa is careful not to incite panic. Asked if the erosion on the north end is at crisis level, he responded: “The engineers are saying the habitable structures are not in imminent danger. The seawall and revetment (rocks) in front of the building closest to the Gulf are pretty solid.”

But he also noted that area is akin to the Islander Club about four years ago when Gulf waters were becoming an increasing imminent threat to wiping out the Islander’s swimming pool.

There’s a plan and strategy, and, according to Florensa, the north-end erosion is at the top of the town’s priority list.

Short-term: The town has been trying to persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to perform “navigational” dredging of Longboat Pass, providing a source of sand. In addition, the town expects to obtain 10,000 to 20,000 cubic yards from the West Coast Inland Navigation District in the next 60 days.
Mid-term: The town is expecting another large sand placement in 2011.

Long-term: It will take about two years for the town to obtain permits to place four 125-foot breakwaters about 200 to 300 feet parallel to the beach at North Shore. These breakwaters are stacks of huge, flat limestones able to withstand being moved by hurricanes.

Here’s one of the frustrations: The waves that erode the beach move at the speed of light compared to the speed of the state- and federal-government bureaucracies. For property owners on Longboat Key, shoring up the beach is urgent. But, as usual, at the state and federal levels, our urgency doesn’t matter. They get paid the same — whether the North Shore condos are protected or whether they fall into the Gulf. There are no consequences to them.

 

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