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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019 4 months ago

Does a black box fit?

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It was not a surprise to hear that fundraising for the town cultural center is not what supporters hoped. That raises a fundamental question.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

The Bay: $100 million to $200 million.

A new Van Wezel: $200 million to $350 million.

Mote Marine Aquarium: $130 million.

Selby Gardens: $92 million.

These are just a few of the major capital requirements and campaigns for new facilities in the region for not-for-profit and public institutions. 

Let’s not forget the Sarasota Orchestra or Sarasota Ballet. They want new permanent homes, too.

That’s close to $1 billion.

 Add in, too, the annual fundraising that occurs regionwide for all of the not-for-profit, human-services organizations that subsist on millions of dollars that come from the region’s generous philanthropists — many of whom happen to be residents of Longboat Key.

Now throw in the $18 million to $20 million in private funding sought for the Longboat Key Arts, Culture and Education Center.

That looks like chump change compared to the other projects. But consider this: The Longboat Key Historical Society is struggling to raise $400,000 to purchase the land on which its two historically preserved cabins sit in Longbeach Village. That makes that $18 million a big number. 

And although there are many philanthropic Longboat Key residents, there is only so much money to go around. 

So, frankly, it came as little surprise last week when Ringling College of Art and Design President Larry Thompson told the Longboat Key Town Commission that fundraising for the Arts, Culture and Education Center — complete with a black box theater — wasn’t going as hoped. 

Ringling College took on the fundraising by way of its partnership with the town to bring the Arts, Culture and Education Center to fruition. That partnership came about in 2017 after Ringling sold the property in the Village that housed Ringling’s Longboat Center for the Arts. With that sale, Thompson, town commissioners and a few board members of the Longboat Key Foundation envisioned developing the cultural-education center on the site of the former Armore restaurant as part of a larger vision to create a full-fledged town center development near the Publix Super Market. Still wanting to maintain a connection to Longboat Key, Thompson committed Ringling to managing the center when completed.

It’s a terrific vision. Unfortunately, it’s fraught with challenges that make that $18 million a higher hill than it looks. For one, there’s that eternal Longboat bugaboo — the exaggerated seasonality of Longboat Key. That’s why a few of Longboat’s blue-chip restaurants still close for an entire month in August or September. 

Facing the slow pace of fund-raising, Thompson recommended last week perhaps changing the strategy to a phased project — develop the arts and education structure first and the black box theater in phase two.

At first thought, the phasing approach has merit. But it has its risks, too. Would it ever be built? And if not, would the site always look like one of those unfinished condos that mar Florida skylines? Judging from the reaction of commissioners, their sentiment is all or nothing.

That is also the sentiment of outgoing Town Commissioner Jim Brown, who has volunteered to lead a review of the project to figure out the “what’s next?”

Brown is the right person for this task. He has 16 years of experience on the subject of developing a Longboat Key Community Center. Brown led the first committee in 2003 to determine what kind and where the town should have a community center. After months of citizens expressing their wants and desires, Longboat voters turned down a referendum to develop a $6.5 million community center at Bayfront Park.

The consensus then was the proposed center was too costly. 

Before expending much effort recruiting big donors for that $18 million, Brown told us this week he thinks Longboat Key residents and taxpayers first need to answer at least one important, fundamental question: 

Do Longboaters want a cultural, arts and education center with a “black box” performing arts hall, or just a cultural, arts and education center that can host lectures, art exhibits and community gatherings?

If you ask all 7,184 voting-age, full-time residents what they want, you’re likely to get 7,184 different opinions.

But the answer to Brown’s question hinges in part on: 1) the town’s aspirations — what its residents want it to be; 2) what is financially practical — what taxpayers are willing to bear.

No one can define the town’s collective aspirations — what residents want Longboat to be in the future; everyone has individual tastes. But history has shown Longboaters are in agreement that they want Longboat to remain Longboat — as the late Murf Klauber would say: a casual, elegant resort-residential community.

With that aspiration, a cultural, arts and education center with a small, black box performing arts hall sounds like a great fit and an appropriate amenity. Indeed, many Longboaters have said such a center would relieve some of the traffic backups on Gulf of Mexico Drive and in downtown Sarasota during season because fewer people would be driving to the mainland for their weekend nights’ out.

But how much of a difference would that make? There’s a big difference between seeing a small ensemble performing a portion of a Verdi opera versus the full production. Likewise with the Sarasota Orchestra and Sarasota Ballet.

And then there are the practical and financial sides. The smaller the audience, the pricier the admission for top talent, or the more philanthropy is required to support the shows and the cost of the black box.

That latter point would become a constant worry for Sarasota’s arts and social-service organizations that rely on Longboat Key residents. Would they support Longboat’s cultural center at the expense of the long-standing performing arts and social-service institutions?  

Then there is what we’ll call the Wayne Huizenga challenge. When the late Waste Management founder bought the Miami Dolphins and what was then Joe Robbie Stadium, he once told a reporter that the stadium reminded him of his dumpsters and a movie theater. To make the dumpsters profitable, he needed customers to keep filling them. To make a movie theater profitable, you must keep filling the seats. To make a stadium profitable, you must keep filling the seats with events.

The same with a black box performing arts hall. Who would do that? How? How much would it cost? Who would fund it? There is not a performing arts organization in the region that can make it on ticket sales. Look what it takes to keep the seats full at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

To be sure, it would make Longboat Key an amazing community to have a first-rate cultural, arts and education center with a black box performing arts hall. But if that is to occur, it would require one, two, three or four major donors — people who believe in Longboat Key, and beyond them, it would require the annual support of Longboat Key residents and, to be sure, subsidies from town taxpayers. 

From the start, you have to admit: A cultural community center with a black box performing arts hall sounded great. Aspirational. Visionary. But in the context of the other institutions’ visions cited at the outset, they make Longboat’s project all that more daunting.

This we know for sure: Longboat Key needs a place for community gatherings; a place for art exhibits; a place where 200 to 300 people can gather for controversial zoning hearings; a place for lectures; and a place for Town Commission candidates’ forums and debates; and more. 

Brown is right. He needs to answer the question: What do Longboaters want — a cultural, arts, education, community center with or without a black box performing arts hall?

When you look back on that proposed $6 million community center that voters rejected in the early 2000s, it looks much more palatable today.

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