With more improvements coming in 2021, talk returns to building a privately funded community center.
Since the land was purchased by the town in early 2017 alongside parcels already owned by the town, it's taken on several looks. It’s been an untamed woodland with a restaurant on a corner, a tamed woodland with space where a restaurant once stood, a construction site and in recent months a leveled-off, sodded event space with basic utility connections and parking.
Phase 2 design and permitting are underway now. By the end of summer, town leaders expect to be underway with work that will add:
- an ellipse of a walkway surrounding a 23,000 square-foot lawn with paved feeder walkways extending to each of the property’s corners;
- a concrete pad for a portable stage;
- shade trees and pedestrian lighting;
- a historic cottage in the northeast corner near the Public Tennis Center.
- two tracts set aside for future construction near the renovated parking area once used by Amore Restaurant.
The space set aside, about 10 percent of the total Town Center land, has been the topic of discussion for months. The 4.8-acre Town Center and its ultimate best use have been points of contention since April 2019 when Ringling College of Art and Design broke off a relationship with the town for joint development of an Arts, Culture and Education Center to be funded with about $11 million in privately raised capital. A private fund-raising effort was on the cusp of launching when the agreement dissolved.
"We do have some time,'' Mayor Ken Schneier said at a December workshop discussion sought by Commissioner Jack Daly to sharpen the focus of what a potential phase 3 might look like. "Though we’d like to have it done yesterday, we know that phase 2 isn’t going to be until sometime next fall. So part of the process to get people excited I think, is to have people see that as it develops. I think it’s going to be beautiful. And to go and look at it and say, 'Gee I have my own ideas. I see your ideas, but I think I can expand on that.' I see the potential for this site once I see the trees go up, once the walkways go in, once the amenities show up, once we start having concerts there.”
Two things are relatively certain: Private financing of phase 3 (the plan never included tax dollars) is a top priority and the inclusion of programming from Bayfront Park's aging recreation center is likely if buildings are constructed.
Town Commissioners over the course of the next few months are likely to work toward sharpening the focus of their vision, beginning with the plan left unfulfilled in 2019 and balancing between a broad concept possibly difficult to sell to residents or donors and a hard-and-fast outline that might not capture the wants of private financiers and could prompt costly do-overs of plans already in motion.
The mission, though, remains much as it was when Ringling was involved.
"It’s clear to me that the ability of our residents to get on and off the island is going to continue to be a challenge,'' said Daly, also the town's representative on transportation issues. "One major objective as I see it is to provide activities and programs the community wants.”
Longboat residents have been queried on the topic several times, the most formal of which was the town's initial municipal survey in 2020. 51% of respondents then said they would support a privately funded Arts, Cultural and Education center, with 24% saying they were unsure. When asked what amenities they would enjoy seeing at town center facility, if built, 55.9% of respondents said lifelong learning; 51.8% said performing arts; 39.2% said technology education; 38.5% said music and music appreciation. Beyond those responses, 23.8% said arts education; 21.8% said manual arts (such as jewelry making or woodworking) and 3.7% said creative writing.
Daly emphasized the commission's role in not only filling in the blanks of what the town proposes, but doing so in a way to drive the project forward. "This time, unless we advance the ball by at least defining what we’re talking about other than just a general concept, then we’re not providing any meaningful way for the public to react,” he said.
New to the discussion now is potential co-location of events and activities from Bayfront Park's Recreation Center and Sarasota County participation in a library branch. Though initial discussions have focused on county management of the town's volunteer run standalone library, eventual inclusion in Town Center buildings could solidify the site as a year-round destination.
Commissioner BJ Bishop said adding Recreation Center activities to the proposed mix could serve to win over residents who might not otherwise be interested. Town leaders have discussed a smaller, headquarters-style building in Bayfront Park or simply removing the building entirely. "Without that passion, I would be concerned that we’re doing something because we think we know best for the citizens, and I think we need to turn that in another direction.’’
Throughout 2021, commissioners will continue refining a focus for phase 3 with the idea of honing a pitch that might connect with donors and potential operators of the facilities.
"We had someone who was ready to do it and bring donors to the table,'' Schneier said. "It's out responsibility to put this in motion. If we don’t find people who are excited to be sponsors or to be donors, then we don’t have a project. But I think its our responsibility to feel that out.''