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Opinion
Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014 5 years ago

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It’s uplifting to think of a town center for Longboat Key; to think of another new and fresh addition. Longboat Key needs that.

The new Publix store is a start, to be sure, but the island could use more to create a sense that rejuvenation and revitalization are underway. That’s why it’s appealing to envision the creation of a town center in the area outlined in yellow in the accompanying Google aerial photograph.

The buzz is palpable — reports and talk of a new community center, medical facilities, steak restaurant, perhaps a roundabout. It would be interesting to conduct a serious contest for the best town-center development ideas.

But alas, there is always reality.

When it comes to completing large-scale developments, there are always multiple components that must fall into place, not the least of which are these two crucial elements: ownership and capital.

Who owns the property?

Experience has shown when big development visions occur, it’s essential there be a single owner who controls the land and is committed to the vision. Just look at the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort, and the tangled spaghetti ball that exists because of the 200-plus unit owners. Or take St. Armands Circle. To persuade all of its many property owners to move in the same direction for the benefit of the Circle is the proverbial exercise of herding cats. There are always strays who refuse to go along.

In this case, along Bay Isles Road, the number of land owners is far fewer, but a challenge to be sure.
Count them: the town (i.e. taxpayers); Longboat Key Equities (the Signature Sotheby’s building, 540 Bay Isles Road); Corp Real Estate of Richmond, Va. (the SunTrust building, 510 Bay Isles Road); the U.S. government (Post Office); and investors Joe Wolfer (the undeveloped property); and Howard Rooks (the Plaza restaurant). Oh, let’s not forget the nonprofit Longboat Library Inc., which holds a lease on its building next to Town Hall, nor Publix Super Market, which owns the Shoppes of Bay Isles, the renamed Avenue of the Flowers center.

Now put all of those owners in a room and ask them to play nicely — for the good of the town and its future. Right.

It’s never that easy.

Or put yourself in Wolfer or Rooks’ shoes. If you owned their properties, you would act as any property owner would: in your self-interest, careful to protect the value of what you own or interested in selling at a fair price. In the case of the latter, Wolfer has been a ready seller, just not at the price a buyer so far has been willing to pay. As a longtime Longboater, he knows the value of Longboat dirt, has the wherewithal to hold and isn’t interested in a fire-sale price.

Rooks, a longtime real estate investor, is similar.

Next, put yourself in the shoes of a developer with a grand vision. To execute it, every smart developer knows every piece of the project must make economic sense. You especially cannot overpay for the land; in fact, it always works best if you can buy at a discount.

Therein is one of the major obstacles to creating any type of town center — the price of the land.
Here’s another obstacle: the post office. Pre-internet and pre-postal automation, Longboat Key’s post office made a lot of sense for the residents of Longboat Key. Not so much now. Postal volumes are declining and will continue to do so, making the post office property underutilized real estate. And if truth be told, in its current size, it’s a luxury for Longboat Key residents.

But try downsizing, cutting back or taking away altogether Longboat’s beloved post office. We can already envision the emotion-charged, packed public hearing at Temple Beth Israel. Yikes.

Or what about swapping out or moving the four northern public tennis courts? Say the town offers a swap with Wolfer’s property, which likely would include an offer of cash to Wolfer.

It wouldn’t be a precedent. The town did a land-density swap with Jerry Ansel in the early 1990s, resulting in what eventually became Joan M. Durante Park in exchange for rights to build the Promenade and two Water Club towers.

The point here is money. Taxpayer money. How much would be required for land swaps, re-routing roads, building roundabouts, installing proper drainage and elevations and building a community center?
We remember, of course, how Longboat Key residents gasped at the idea of committing taxpayers to $6 million for a proposed community center at Bayfront Park and Recreation Center. Voters slammed that door shut decisively.

Not to be a Negative Nabob here. An attractive town center in the area between Gulf of Mexico Drive and Bay Isles Road would be a great addition to Longboat Key. But when you look at the landscape — i.e. the properties and their owners — the thought of the Town Commission, town administration or ULI advisory panel spearheading the development of a town center is, well, a nice dream. Or would it be a nightmare?

Can you imagine? It brings to mind those grueling public hearings over the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s proposed expansion a few years ago, with seven commissioners offering seven opinions on whether there should be two or three buildings and whether they should be three stories or five.

Suffice it to say, creating a new town center would require a lot of passion and a lot of capital. The passion of a visionary developer who, above all, believes in Longboat Key; who owned and/or controlled all of the land; and who has the patient capital to carry it to fruition.

He must be out there somewhere.

+ 911: Worth the price
One of the characteristics that always has distinguished Longboat Key from other communities is taxpayers’ willingness to pay the price for that extra level of public service. It’s important.

That’s why town commissioners should just cut short the study of whether to give up the town’s own 911 service in favor of adopting Sarasota County’s 911 service.

Don’t switch.

Sure, it probably makes economic sense. It’s more costly to invest in the technology, provide the manpower and operate a system for 6,500 residents than it is to have one for 355,000 residents. Bulk is always less expensive than custom.

But this is what separates Longboat Key from most other places. Longboat residents place a high priority on public safety and first-class service, and they’re willing to pay for it. They choose to live on Longboat Key in part because of that. They want firefighters to be trained paramedics. They want police officers to respond to the snake in the toilet or the raccoon in the garage. They want police cruisers tailing suspicious motorists cruising Gulf of Mexico Drive at 3 a.m.

Not to denigrate any of Longboat Key’s neighbors, but take a ride to Siesta Key. Or read the Cops Corners of the Longboat Observer and Pelican Press. There’s a difference. You can see it, and you can feel it. And to a large extent that difference is in the level of public service. It’s like the difference between a big corporation and a small, family business. The former is often cold and robotic; the latter typically caters far more to your individual needs.

When Longboaters call 911, they want the person on the other end of the call connected to the Key. It’s worth the price.

COST OF EDUCATION
In two months, Sarasota County voters will vote on a referendum to renew the one-mill public-school property tax. Over the next few weeks, we’ll provide information that may help you decide how to vote.
For instance, below is the cost per pupil and student-teacher ratios in Sarasota County:

             Per-Pupil        Pupil/Teacher
             Cost                Ratio

2009    $10,725         15.4
2010    $10,427         15.0
2011    $10,500         14.9
2012    $9,819           15.0
2013    $10,017         14.4

In contrast, the average per-pupil tuition in Catholic parish elementary schools is $5,387. The secondary school mean freshman tuition is $10,228 per pupil.

 

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