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Longboat Key Thursday, Jul. 22, 2021 9 months ago

Governments as developers

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The strategy is to build a venue for farmers markets, concerts and art festivals, with the hope donors and taxpayers eventually will support a cultural and community center. Hope is never a good strategy.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

What is it about elected commissioners and representatives that they all want to be landowners and developers with other people’s (taxpayers’) money?

Longboat Key commissioners are no exception. Ever since the late Vice Mayor David Brenner advocated that the town purchase Joe Wolfer and Howard Rooks’ properties behind Chase Bank near Publix, Longboat commissioners have been fixated on developing a town center.

We saw the latest iteration of designs last week in the Longboat Observer — including a park setting with a covered stage, pedestrian walkways and promenades, one of the historical Whitney cottages tucked in a corner, two (so far undesignated) buildings, and lush canopy trees. It’s a design perfectly suited to accommodate what 80% to 95% of respondents said in a Longboat citizens survey they would attend if offered — a farmers market, art shows, craft festivals and outdoor concerts.

It all sounds great, looks great.

But here we are again. Commissioners are hoping the town can find a benefactor who will donate $500,000 or $600,000 to complete the stage in exchange for naming rights.

That’s certainly far less than the $13 million they were seeking three years ago. After all, this is just a placeholder idea. The strategy is to spend $100,000 or so, maybe $500,000 of taxpayer money to accommodate farmers markets, outdoor art shows and concerts to generate traffic at the center. The idea is to show Longboaters that the farmers market, art shows and concerts are such a great idea that some private benefactors, the Sarasota County Commission and, likely, Longboat taxpayers will be convinced there should be an arts, education and community center on the site.

It takes vision, right?

We’d like to be an optimist for all this; it would indeed be great if the vision unfolded as dreamed. But it’s also difficult not to be a cynic and skeptic, especially when you consider the track record of governments when they become developers.

You know the way these things go — government creep. It will start out small and gradually grow into an ongoing town operating expense: maintenance of the park and stage, management of events (scheduling; approving permits and collecting fees; police help with parking, traffic and safety) and a town staffer or two to administer whatever activities do come about.

There is no question that if this concept were to become reality, it would be a nice amenity. We remember, for instance, when the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce and this newspaper sponsored Concerts in the Park in Joan M. Durante Park.

They were nice Sunday afternoon events — people sitting on blankets and in lawn chairs, enjoying jazz and big band concerts. There was no stage or bandshell; the musicians played under rented tents. A stage and bandshell certainly would raise the quality of such events.

There’s also that side of us that thinks about the St. Armands Circle Park. The St. Armands Association is constantly wrestling with the city of Sarasota over when and how that park can be used and the fees charged to the users — to the point that some Circle landowners and merchants want to buy the park to get out from under the bureaucracy of the city.

But that won’t happen here. Right.

Is there a better alternative to what’s being proposed? It’s hard to imagine at this point the town commissioners giving up and the two properties reverting to private-sector owners. You know how these things go. Governments rarely sell land they buy.

But in lieu of the commissioners’ town center vision, we have long advocated an alternative: for the town to make better use of the Longboat Key Library property, an ideal location for a much-needed community center, a place where 100, 200, 250 people could attend a Town Commission candidate forum, a Town Commission meeting debating whether there should be a St. Regis Resort, a Town Hall meeting with a member of Congress or art shows displaying Longboat artists’ works.

It could complement the outdoor venue being proposed now as well as Temple Beth Israel’s idea for developing a new education center facility.

Taxpayers would carry all of the burden for this community center through a bond issue. And bringing it to fruition, we’d bet, would take far less time than the grand town center vision.

But we’ll be patient and wish the commissioners and their fundraiser, the Longboat Key Foundation, the best. We’d love to be proven wrong: that governments make lousy real estate developers.

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