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Opinion
Longboat Key Friday, Mar. 29, 2019 1 year ago

Milestones of our times

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Often times, noteworthy historical events pass us by with little fanfare or recognition. Here are two that illustrate the richness of Longboat Key and one that's just plain fun.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Three milestones worth noting in the span of nine days …

1. Jim Brown retires

Commissioner Jim Brown officially retired March 19 from the Longboat Key Town Commission after 16 years of service to the town.

Brown served eight years as a commissioner; four one-year terms as mayor; six years on the town’s Planning and Zoning Board; and from 2002 to 2004 as chairman of an advisory board asked to determine the feasibility of constructing a community center.

When Brown announced his intention not to run for re-election, we noted that during his terms as mayor, Brown presided during some of the most tumultuous times in town history.

Throughout, Brown maintained his steady, monotone, unflappable demeanor, never showing a hint of a crisis.

Brown fit the category of a long list of town commissioners who served not for their egos, but to do good for the town and its taxpayers. 

2. Chamber celebrates 60th anniversary 

The Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 60th annual meeting and awards luncheon a week ago at the Zota Beach Resort.

If you think a minute or two about the fact that this tiny island community has sustained a chamber of commerce for 60 years, it’s remarkable. Especially when you consider how few businesses are on the Key.

The Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 60th annual meeting and awards luncheon a week ago at the Zota Beach Resort.

The chamber’s founding actually goes back more than 60 years, to 1952, when Neil Ulrey, one of Longboat Key’s founding fathers, organized what was then the Longboat Beach Association. Key Notes, a promotional booklet about the Key, described the association as “dedicated to advertise and promote Longboat Key as a tourist resort, to promote better business relations and work in conjunction with the Civic Club for the betterment of the island as a whole.”

That mission continues today, although the Longboat Key Civic Club no longer exists. Over time, eight other citizens’ groups have come and gone. One of them, the Longboat Key Public Interest Committee (PIC) was an unabashed opponent of the chamber of commerce. 

It’s safe to say they were enemies. PIC would not allow anyone who was a member of the chamber to be a member of PIC. And PIC campaigned constantly in the 1990s  to persuade the Town Commission to enact ordinances that would bring about the elimination of all businesses on the Key, or at the least make it  unpleasant for them to expand.

PIC’s anti-business posture worked. As one shop and restaurant after another shuttered, residents and others could see and feel the Key was suffering economically.

When it finally dawned on PIC’s new leaders around 2008 what PIC had wrought, they realized if the Key were to remain a premier resort-residential community, the Key needed a healthy mix of businesses. To many people’s surprise, PIC reversed course and actually began partnering and becoming allies with the chamber on many issues and community activities.

PIC eventually folded. But the chamber carried on. In fact, the chamber became a leading positive force in the campaign in 2008 for a charter amendment that would create a bank of 250 tourism units for existing resorts that wanted to expand or new ones that wanted to develop. The units were intended to make it easier to bring back the number of hotel rooms that were lost in the great condo-conversion era.

And then came the big recession. Chamber membership plummeted. This occurred at the same time the chamber was carrying debt. By 2013, the chamber’s condition was dire.

The chamber board considered merging with other chambers, perhaps even folding. But then-Chair Yvonne Schloss, owner of Sunglass Express on St. Armands Circle, reached out to the person who led the chamber’s renaissance in the 1990s — Gail Loefgren.

Loefgren served as president from 1993 to 2008. During her term, she re-energized a flagging organization, leading it to record membership and being named in 1997 Florida’s chamber of commerce of the year. The chamber created the now-popular annual Fourth of July Freedom Fest; annual hurricane-preparedness conferences for residents; and popular Small Business Week events, among other community events.

Loefgren almost said no, but she agreed to return to try to resurrect the chamber a second time.

Here we are six years later, and Loefgren was pleased to report at the chamber’s 60th annual meeting the chamber had paid off its debt and had money in reserves. 

Congratulations go again to Loefgren for the second time around. And congratulations to the chamber members and board members who didn’t give up. Many of the longtime, faithful stalwarts were at last week’s luncheon: Andrew Vac, Jeff Mayers, Jack Dean, Yvonne Schloss, Michele Knuese, Jan Jordan, Michael Doll, Sandy Tull, JoAnn Wolverton, Mark Meador, Tammy Halsted, Tonya Atchison.

When you look up and down Longboat Key, you’d be hard-pressed to find continuous businesses that have lasted 60 years — Cannons Marina (64 years); Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant & Pub (69, maybe 72 years, depending on how you count its iterations). 

No doubt, Neil Ulrey would take pride seeing the organization he started to promote Longboat Key as a tourist destination, to promote better business relations and for the betterment of the island as a whole remains a pillar of this community. Long may it continue.

1. April fools

Gotcha!

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Longboat Observer’s annual April Fools spoof edition.

This is always our editorial staff’s favorite edition — a time when they are not constrained by the truth and actually can write what apparently is normal in the national press and TV: Fake news!

And they relish the fun. It starts the day after each April Fools’ edition appears. Our reporters and editors begin squirreling away real news stories that, with a little playful embellishment, can be turned into a plausibly true tale that makes readers react with disbelief, astonishment, sometimes anger.

Take the first edition in 1999. It was a doozy.

A personal favorite was the story of the Pentagon selecting 75-year-old senior editor and cooking columnist Dora Walters to be embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq to cover how the military feeds the troops.

McDonald’s becoming the first national fast-food burger joint on the Key (horrors!); lowering the speed limit on Gulf of Mexico Drive from 45 to 35 mph; and the Pentagon announcing fighter jets from MacDill Air Force Base would use the under-utilized Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to launch practice strafing missions up and down Longboat’s coast. At the time, the town was embroiled in a fight with the airport over the flight path of jets taking off over the Key.

About mid-morning the day those stories appeared, a less-than-happy Longboat town manager said he was being inundated with phone calls from Longboaters  protesting the lower speed limit and strafing missions. One man told us he hired a high-powered D.C., lawyer to protest the flights.

Seemingly everyone’s favorite was the 2003 front page, with the photo of the Ringling Bridge under construction. We hired Anna Maria Island photographer Jack Elka to take an aerial photo, and then we doctored the photo to make it appear one of the sections clearly was out of line. 

The “news story” reported strong currents pushed an 800-ton section of the bridge 50 feet out of line. The day the story appeared, then Executive Editor Lisa Walsh received a call from an almost frantic engineer who was working on post-earthquake bridge construction in Oakland, Calif. He wanted a copy of the story faxed to him. When Walsh told him the story was an April Fools’ spoof, he was not amused.

A personal favorite was the story of the Pentagon selecting 75-year-old senior editor and cooking columnist Dora Walters to be embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq to cover how the military feeds the troops. The best part of the story occurred soon after. When Walters showed up at Temple Beth Israel to cover an event, she received a standing ovation for her overseas service.

Lisa Walsh always said she knew when our April Fools’ stories hit the mark. They would make her laugh until she cried.

We’re happy with just a smile. It’s hard to believe we’ve been doing this for 20 years and can still fool a few. 

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