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Longboat Key Sunday, May 1, 2022 1 month ago

County leaders suggest paths forward for Longboat Key library

Cooperation between the town, Sarasota County and possibly Manatee County could be considered.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

Following an exchange of verbal good vibrations between leaders of the Sarasota County Commission and the Longboat Key Town Commission, at least new four proposals for financing a county-run library and community center on the island surfaced last week at a joint meeting in Sarasota.

Among them: potential cooperation with Manatee County and Sarasota County Schools on funding such a gathering place’s operating costs, state money to help propel the project, federal grant money and even tax money expected to begin flowing from the Residences at St. Regis Resort Longboat Key in 2025

The gathering of town and county leaders is an annual event, this year taking place at county government headquarters in Sarasota. Although it's not a forum for decisions to be made, the meeting offered Longboat Key commissioners and staff a chance to formally and publicly lobby for county participation in the discussed-for-years project that picks up where the failed Arts, Culture and Education Center proposal with Ringling College of Design and Art left off.

The community center and library's set-aside location is roughly that occupied by the former Amore restaurant. The conceptual building is placed to show scale, not design.

Also on the agenda were updates on county-run and state-run transportation initiatives and a progress report on St. Regis construction, planned for June of 2024.

But it was the library and community center talk that took center stage, preceded by an exchange of pleasantries from County Commission Chair Al Maio and Mayor Ken Schneier.

"This is our favorite joint meeting," Maio said, opening the meeting. "Now, perhaps I say that at all the joint meetings, but I do mean it."

"We are here, and I would just sort of repay the compliment, with our favorite county," Schneier said. "There are several counties in Florida, and this happens to be our very, very favorite one."

Town leaders came to the meeting with a proposed timeline that kicks off with upgraded remote library services for island residents this year, followed by a path that includes the project landing on the county’s five-year, capital-improvement project budget to solidify its position in line for county tax dollars, beginning in next year’s budget with money for planning and design. Following along, construction dollars in 2024 and operational dollars in 2025.

An early concept of what a two-story community center and library at the Town Center Green might look like (Courtesy: Town of Longboat Key).

Maio, who has been speaking with Schneier and Town Manager Tom Harmer about the proposal, told Harmer in the joint meeting that he would formally recommend to the County Commission that the library/community center be folded into upcoming budget discussions, which culminate in September with an adopted operating budget and a budget for longer-term projects.

“I will suggest to the commission at a budget hearing … that we set a capital improvement plan, give it a number, … and it’s the first of several steps to at least get it memorialized that we are going to do something in the way of a capital improvement with libraries," he said. "I hope that it’s taken in the spirit that it’s offered."

Commissioner Christian Ziegler said it was fair that Sarasota County entities (perhaps including Sarasota County Schools) budget for the cost of building a facility because of its location but suggested Manatee County residents of Longboat Key could also use the finished product, leading to a suggestion that operational costs could be split. He added he’s had talks with three Manatee Commissioners who expressed initial support of such an idea. Town leaders meet with Manatee leaders in a similar forum on May 26.

"I think both commissions understand how much of a donor Longboat Key is in terms of the tax dollars that get sent to both counties," Ziegler said.

Renee DiPilato, the Sarasota County director of libraries and historical resources, said the two counties use different systems for filing and tracking borrowed materials, but said the technical hurdles could be cleared. Ziegler suggested perhaps issuing Longboat Key library users a unique card that would operate in both environments and allow full access in both counties as opposed to the typical reciprocal access patrons have.

An early concept of what a two-story community center and library at the Town Center Green might look like (Courtesy: Town of Longboat Key).

Commissioners Nancy Detert and Ron Cutsinger reminded the town there are untapped state and federal dollars that could help pay some of the cost, made more likely if multiple jurisdictions are participating, possibly even alongside private donors.

Commissioner Mike Moran, who in 2021 pushed for a reversal of the county’s single-member district voting system, said he retained an open mind about Manatee County’s participation, but asked what he would tell his District 1 constituents across the northern portion of Sarasota County about funding a community center and library on Longboat Key, which is in Ziegler’s District 2.

"I feel confident that in your countywide study of library services, Longboat Key is going to come out as a clear gap," Harmer said. "If you compare us to other parts of the county and you talk about, say, drive times to libraries and access to libraries, it’s a service we really don’t have."

Harmer said the notion of a library in the 2020s differs from previous years, becoming of late more of a central gathering place.

"The idea of a library to me, and we’ve talked about this a lot, to me a library in today’s world is a community center," he said "If you go to Venice library, or you go to North Port library or you go to Gulf Gate library, they have reading rooms, they have meeting rooms, they have larger flex space that can be for lectures and other things, and they have the circulation area," he said, adding that no such place exists on the barrier islands of Lido, St. Armands and Longboat keys.

"We are not underserved. We are unserved," Schneier said.

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