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Longboat Key Thursday, Jul. 11, 2019 1 week ago

Preserve Longboat's history

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That history should not be forgotten. It deserves to be on display.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

For the most part, Americans are good about remembering and preserving history. We saw plenty of that over the past two months — the 75th anniversary of D-Day and last week’s celebrations of Independence Day. 

And even though President Trump received the usual smackdowns from the Never Trumpers over his Fourth of July Celebration of America, if you saw it and have an ounce of patriotism in you, you should be able to admit that he did a great job of celebrating this nation’s 243-year history by telling the stories of our history. 

It was nice for a change to hear a president praise the amazing accomplishments of this republic and its people rather than tear it down. When you read or hear the details of our story, you cannot be anything but proud to be an American. What an extraordinary legacy worth preserving and retelling again and again.

And so it should be with the history of the town of Longboat Key.

But alas, it is not.

Our new Longboat Key reporter, Sten Spinella, last week detailed the travails and quest of the Longboat Key Historical Society to raise at least $450,000 to purchase the real estate and complete the renovation of the two historical cottages in Longbeach Village, just east of Gulf of Mexico Drive on Broadway.

It’s a struggle. As it always has been since Ralph Hunter, the late founder of the Longboat Observer, founded the Longboat Key Historical Society in 1984.

Over the past 35 years, various successors of Hunter — Longboaters Tom Mayers, Pam Coleman and now Drake as the society’s president — have cobbled together volunteers, donations, contributions and fish fries to raise enough funds to secure storage space for the society’s artifacts and photographs. 

But for the past seven years, the society has existed in name only, having given up its space in 2012 in the Whitney Plaza.

It has always been difficult for the society’s members to gin up great support, in part because descendants of the town’s founders are so few, and most residents’ roots are shallow. Think about it: The majority of Longboat Key’s property owners since the 1950s and 1960s have been part-time residents. It’s not like Boston, where family ties go back to the 1600s and 1700s.

On top of that, to Hunter’s credit, he was adamant about not seeking taxpayer handouts to keep the society going. We’re in that same camp. If it’s a worthwhile not-for-profit venture, it should be able to sustain itself.

In that vein, we thought the society finally might generate the support it deserved when developer Jim Clabaugh in 2017 purchased the Longboat Key Center for the Arts and donated to the historical society two of the center’s original cottages (with their roots going back to the center’s founding in the mid-1950s). Drake struck a deal to relocate the cottages on vacant property on Broadway Street next to the Century 21 office at the entrance to Longbeach Village. But he needs at least $450,000 to purchase the land.

That’s a lot of money for the historical society. But when we saw the Town Commission allocate $2 million of the town’s parks fund to purchase the two parcels next to the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center for an $18 million arts, cultural and education center, we couldn’t help but bristle at how the Town Commission so readily spent that $2 million on what was clearly a longshot project but over the years has expressed no interest in helping preserve town history.

To add to the consternation, at one point the Town Commission seriously discussed spending $450,000 to purchase the defunct gas station at Broadway and Gulf of Mexico Drive — across from the historical site — for a park. But after private interests contracted to buy that site, that $450,000 of town parks money evaporated. It was no longer available.

Longboat Key Mayor George Spoll told the Longboat Observer last week, “There is nothing around in the way of dollars” to help the historical society buy the land for the cottages. And he said, “I do not believe that [the town paying $450,000 to buy the land] would receive a great deal of support.”

On the former, that there isn’t $450,000 available, we find that difficult to accept. If there’s a will, there’s a way. Not only that, but when we hear the mayor say there aren’t funds available for the town to pay $450,000 to establish a park for the historical society’s cottages, we can’t help but look at the cash horde the town has set aside for a rainy day (see chart above). 

According to the town’s budget projections, by the end of fiscal 2019, the town is expecting it will have $8,285,921 in reserve, enough to operate the town for 180 days in the event of an emergency. If the Town Commission allocated $450,000 of that to purchase the historical society land, that would reduce the rainy-day fund by only 10 days.

The money is there. 

But here’s a better idea: Rather than turn those two empty parcels designated for that (unlikely) arts, cultural and education center into a park for small-time, outdoor concerts and rather than spend $450,000 to purchase the land in the Village for the historical society’s two cottages, the town should move one (perhaps both) of the historical society cottages to the site designated for the cultural center.

Numerous times before we have advocated establishing the historical society on the same property and in conjunction with the Longboat Key Library, next to Town Hall. But with no support for that and little support for an $18 million arts-cultural center, with some creative, visionary thinking, surely architects can design an attractive, affordable setting that could establish a welcoming, permanent home for the Longboat Key Historical Society.

When people read about the founding of Longboat Key in Hunter’s book, “From Calusas to Condominiums” and when they read about the characters who homesteaded Longboat and established it as an incorporated town, they discover a fascinating history of entrepreneurism and community spirit and pride.

That history should not be forgotten. It deserves to be on display. We can think of no better place to showcase Longboat’s colorful history than next to and near Publix, the one place where everyone goes.

Creating a historical attraction on the arts-cultural center site would be a realistic step toward the kind of town center that fits with Longboat Key. What’s more, with the historical society housed where people congregate, you can envision a historical society with much more resident support and the wherewithal to operate its day-to-day affairs without taxpayer support.

Hunter’s dream would be fulfilled.

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