Ringling officials don't think $18 million can be raised to build art center as envisioned.
Commissioner Jim Brown will meet with officials from the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Sarasota Ballet this month to discuss the proposed multi-purpose black box theater that suddenly took center stage in discussions about the town's planned Arts, Culture and Education Center.
“We want to know what we’re getting into,” Brown said at a Town Commission meeting Monday. “I am keeping it a committee of one at this point. But, we need to do something to let the public know what is going on.”
Longboat officials have been working for years on a plan with Ringling College of Art and Design that would transform 4.8 acres next to Bay Isles Shopping Center into an arts center, featuring classrooms, studios, a computer lab and gallery for education and display of visual and performing arts. Central to the proposal was the black box theater, suitable for a variety of uses and audience configurations.
For nearly as long, the town and Ringling had been estimating private fundraising for the project at $18 million. But, in a town workshop Jan. 22, Ringling President Larry Thompson cast doubt on the prospects of raising that much money for something devoted to Longboat Key. He also spoke about the college's inexperience with running a performing arts center.
He suggested $10 million or $11 million was more realistic and proposed spinning off the theater into a second phase to be financed and built later. That caught town officials off-guard, largely because the theater was considered the centerpiece of the center.
“If we go the Ringling route, it’s the death knell for the black box,” Commissioner Jack Daly said.
Following Thompson’s suggestion to phase the project, Brown volunteered to put together a committee to give input on the best way forward. Fundraising for the project will be done by the Longboat Key Foundation, a nonprofit Brown helped start.
On Monday, Brown, who is stepping away from town government at the end of his term in March, said the theater doesn’t have to be more than a room. He also said the town needs to know how much it would cost to run a theater.
“I am trying to define that more clearly,” he said. “It doesn’t need a fixed stage.”
Ringling had hoped to have the center built by 2023 though private donations. In the interim, the town intends to demolish the Amore building this month and create an outdoor venue for a variety of uses while fundraising progressed.
Before its sale by Ringling for $1.85 million in 2017, the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, in Longboat Village, served many of the desired roles as the town's proposed new venue. It was demolished in 2017 and the land sold for private development.