Here we go again.
Apparently intent on building a new community center at Bayfront Park, the Longboat Key Town Commission Monday night approved establishing a fund up to $25,000 to hire a consultant to prepare a prospectus for a new facility.
This issue is almost like replacing the Ringling Bridge — at least 10 years old and counting. And we have driven down this community-center road numerous times, never quite getting to the final destination.
That destination, of course, would include razing the beloved but rickety Bayfront Park Recreation Center building. Colony Beach & Tennis Resort owner Murf Klauber donated that building to the town in the early 1980s. It formerly served as the activity center at one of Longboat Key’s most popular historic resorts, the Far Horizons, now the Vizcaya condominiums.
Everyone knows the recreation center building is still standing today only because all of its termites are standing with locked arms to hold it up. It needs to be replaced.
That’s the easy part — reaching that conclusion.
But replaced with what? And for how much?
First, the what.
One of the arguments for a new community center is that it is an important piece to Longboat Key’s future status as an attractive resort-retirement, second-home community. Having a good community center often came up in the town’s multitudinous “vision” planning sessions. If Longboat expects to attract affluent home buyers, the story goes, the Key needs more and better amenities to compete in the world marketplace.
But from there the discussion runs into all sorts of briar patches. Years ago, two factions of Longboaters clashed over a vision of a new community center when one group advocated for nice workout and excercise facilities, while another said it wanted a public swimming pool. This was classic special interests at work.
As the pool people said: Why should the workout interests get what they want at our (tax) expense, but we don’t get what we want?
Another debate: The town needs a better central meeting place for such things as Town Commission candidate forums and other public meetings. But up the road, at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, its advocates say: Wait a minute, we have great facilities for those types of events. Why build another?
And really, how much demand is there for a community center? It would be wasteful to construct a tax-supported facility that sits unused 10 months of the year.
Then there is the “how much?” How much would a new community center cost — to build and maintain in perpetuity? And from where will the tax money come?
The cost of construction, of course, will hinge on how decked-out and elaborate a new center would be. Many Longboaters remember one of the previous attempts at this generated a proposal for a $6.5 million community center. Longboaters said no to that. The talk these days is about half that.
Probably the bigger issue is ongoing cost and maintenance. This is often overlooked. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, numerous Florida cities erected performing-arts centers, only to realize after the fact that coming up with the construction money was much easier than coming up with the annual cash to keep the lights and air-conditioning going.
Just look to our neighbors to the north. The Anna Maria Island Community Center has an army of volunteers that works every year to raise $100,000 or more in private contributions to keep that place running with all of its programs. Knowing Longboaters’ philanthropic interests in giving to charitable causes that benefit the needy, it’s difficult to imagine a lot of enthusiasm for private contributions flowing to a Longboat Key community center. Just look at how difficult it is to maintain the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, the Longboat Library and the Longboat Key Historical Society.
With all of that, it seems difficult to make a convincing case for using any source of tax dollars — be they local, county, state or federal — to build a glistening community center at Bayfront Park. We can’t help but continue to think about that $26 million unfunded pension liability hanging over taxpayers’ heads.
And to bond and build a multimillion-dollar community center in the face of continuing budget constraints and growing pension debt seems almost European, like borrowing more money when you’re already in a deep hole. It also would be disingenuous at best, deceitful at worst, if commissioners tried to tap funds from the “infrastructure surtax.” This tactic would claim that a community center is “infrastructure,” and therefore the Town Commission could avoid a referendum and use tax dollars from the counties’ infrastructure surtax.
It’s safe to say most Longboaters would love to see a new community center. But the fact of the matter is the town has other, higher priorities to address first.
+ Swap park for steakhouse
Rather than fund and erect a costly white elephant (i.e. community center) at Bayfront Park, here’s an alternative to consider:
With all the talk of creating a town center around the soon-to-be redeveloped Publix Super Market and connecting the store better with Town Hall on Bay Isles Road, perhaps it might make sense to consider a land swap.
The town could swap the two parcels between Pattigeorges restaurant and Bayfront Park (the town just paid $452,500 for the 0.7-acre waterfront parcel next to Pattigeorges) with Howard Rooks’ shuttered steakhouse behind Avenue of the Flowers.
Rather than let that 9,400-square-foot restaurant property continue to sit empty and deteriorate, it could be converted to a community center and perhaps satisfy the vision of creating town-center activities clustered around Publix.
Consider the values — at least as they are on paper. Rooks’ 9,400-square-foot restaurant property was assessed at $925,000. The parcel next to Pattigeorges sold for roughly half that. Add in the sliver of property between the Bayfront Park parking lot and the Pattigeorges parcel, and you get to an even exchange.
Actually, Rooks might get a slightly better deal — roughly an acre of mostly undeveloped waterfront property that could be used for some type of luxury residential use.
Everyone would win — Rooks, taxpayers and the town. Rooks would get out from the noose of a deteriorating asset whose hopes for resurrection into productive restaurant use are slim to none. Plus, he’d have a valuable, new asset that indeed could become productive.
Likewise, the town and taxpayers would win if that waterfront property next to Pattigeorges was entered back onto the tax rolls. Rather than an annual drain on taxpayers as a small part of an underutilized park, a new resident on that property would contribute to the town’s tax base.
And finally, the town would have its community center — with little or no debt to carry — and part of a new town center near Publix and Town Hall.
It’s worth a look.