Split vote on pre-construction document raises questions among town leaders.
Yes, the Longboat Key Town Commission wants to work in collaboration with Ringling College of Art and Design in pursuit of the town’s proposed Arts, Culture and Education Center.
And yes, the seven members of the commission want to pursue a pre-construction memorandum of understanding with the college, in substantially the same form as one presented to commissioners this week.
That was confirmed Monday with two informal and unanimous shows of hands in support of those two statements during a commission workshop.
But, resistance to some of the wording of that document between the town and the college April 1 resulted in a split vote against its approval and more than 90 minutes of additional discussion this week on the reasons why.
Mayor George Spoll said it all comes down to trust, both in the community and in the commission chambers, and deep discussion of the roles of all parties in the agreement is one way to clear the air and approach a more cohesive result the next time a vote is held, possibly in early May.
“Four to three is a heck of a way to start a project like this,” Spoll said. “Even if it was approved 4-3, I think it would be terrible. I would love to see a 7-0 or 6-1 maybe if there is someone who has a die-hard principle we have to overlook.”
Among those central to the discussion are issues raised by Spoll, Vice Mayor Ed Zunz and others over why the Ringling-supported Longboat Key Center for the Arts, which closed in 2017, wasn’t able to continue operating.
Zunz said he hasn’t had enough information or public input to feel comfortable supporting the pre-construction agreement, described as a “handshake.”
“We ought to put all this together before we go out and seek all this money from all these people, and I just want to see that this happens and we do it in a responsible way,” Zunz said. “I don’t see how that can be all bad.”
Whether it was its location on the northern tip of the island, a reluctance to expand or some other reason, the former arts center — which opened in 1952 — shut down in May 2017 after 10 years under Ringling management. Following Ringling’s sale of the land for $1.85 million and demolition of the buildings, houses are now under construction on the Village land.
“What can we expect in the way of continued support if, in fact, this proves to be a burdensome project and isn’t working the way it’s contemplated?” Spoll said. “What’s the level of commitment?”
Other commissioners, including Mike Haycock, said the pre-construction document is a first step, and there will be opportunities to further refine and specify roles and responsibilities.
He said the project still is in a feasibility stage, and previous memoranda of understanding were approved routinely, only to change later with the proposal.
Among them, a downsizing earlier this year from an $18 million proposal that included a black box theater to one now that eliminates the theater in favor of a multi-purpose room.
“We’re at the right stage now to approve this memorandum. We’ll be at another stage a year from now where we’re going to need to write a much firmer contract,” Haycock said.
The project, estimated to cost $11 million, is to be built with private donations. The effort is being coordinated by the Longboat Key Foundation alongside Ringling.
Jeff Mayers, chair of the foundation, urged the commissioners to come to an agreement.
“While I understand a decision has to be made and has to be well-thought out to make sure there is a level of comfort for the town, understand that we’ve been at this for multiple years and the longer we continue to delay, this is going to hurt our credibility for this project to come to fruition,” Mayers said.