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Longboat Key Thursday, May 2, 2019 5 months ago

Ringling reconsiders arts center venture: Now what? Don't give up

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College's president didn't shut and lock the arts center door. When two sides want a deal to happen, they'll find a way.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

Whenever projects, jobs, business deals, sports competitions, marriages go awry, it’s almost human nature to look back and say such things as:

• “Let’s not ever do that again.”

• “Where did we go wrong?”

• “What do we need to do differently to correct the mistake and not repeat it?”

• “What did we learn?”

There is another common reaction as well: We look to blame.

All of this comes to mind in the wake of the Ringling College of Art and Design’s announcement Monday, to quote its press release, that “it has reconsidered its involvement at this time in the collaborative effort with the town of Longboat Key and the Longboat Key Foundation to develop the Longboat Key Arts, Culture and Education Center.”

It was not a definitive “we’re done.” “At this time” says there could be another time.

But for now, while some tempers, or temperatures, are still on the high side, let’s start with the blame game. 

No doubt there are and will be many who have been involved in this project and outside of the project who will blame the Longboat Observer for Ringling’s withdrawal.

Readers of this page over the past two weeks are aware that we posed questions to our readers in an online survey to gauge Longboaters’  temperatures for the center. We received 100 responses, and we emphasized the survey results were not statistically or scientifically valid. The responses, nevertheless, were demonstrably cold. Not favorable. 

Ringling President Larry Thompson did not blame the Longboat Observer specifically in the college’s press release, or that the survey results were his tipping point, but you can infer. Here is what he said:

“Unfortunately, this questioning of the desire for the Center and even potential opposition to it significantly hampers the potential for success of the project at this time. This increasingly negative feedback that we have received has led us to conclude that the raising of the philanthropic dollars needed to create this Center, even at the lower cost, is not probable at this time.”

Former Mayor Jim Brown was equally distressed with our survey. “Why are you being so negative?” he asked last week. “You’re hurting the fundraising … Not one dollar of taxpayer money is going to be involved to build it.”

Read Brown’s letter to the editor on page 9. 

 

A tipping point?

Yes, you can blame the Observer for contributing to the “negative feedback.” And perhaps the results of our reader survey indeed became the tipping point for Thompson.

This outcome was not our intent. The survey was intended to give town commissioners, Ringling College and the Longboat Key Foundation information that might send signals for how to move forward. 

If you think back, who really knew how Longboat residents and taxpayers felt? Brown said he knew, based on his work on the community center idea for 17 years. Former Mayor Terry Gans quoted Sir Thomas More in a letter to commissioners that “silence implies consent.”

Perhaps. But that silence also could be that Longboat residents just didn’t know what to expect and were waiting. 

No one doubted that having Ringling would be good for Longboat Key. But as this effort meandered, there were ups and downs. Should there be a black-box theater? Yes? No? Will private donors contribute $18 million, $11 million? What will it look like — a large, single structure? Multiple buildings? 

Beyond those questions, if this center were to be built with private dollars, then what? Who pays to maintain it? We heard over and over Ringling would manage the programming. What about the structure? What would that mean for taxpayers? “At the least,” we wrote, “town commissioners should take our survey responses as impetus to find out more.”

For sure, readers’ negative sentiments obviously worsened the climate between the Town Commission and Ringling. Their negotiations, mind you, already were in a state of uncertainty and consternation before the survey, a result, primarily, of two commissioners’ preferences and questions about details to be included in an agreement.

The talks appeared to be losing momentum and devolving into what often happens with city commissions. Longboat’s Arts, Culture and Education Center was becoming Sarasota’s parking meters — a back-and-forth tar baby that ends up frustrating the non-government party on the other side of the table. 

Ringling College may have its own bureaucracy, but it’s a private school where its president is an entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs seldom have patience for slow government decision making — and lukewarm receptions. 

Worth noting is that while these discussions were stopping and starting between the town and Ringling College, across the bay the Sarasota City Commission was finalizing a partnership agreement with the Bay Park Conservancy, a not-for-profit private organization that will be responsible for fundraising, developing and managing the day-to-day operations of the city’s 53 bayfront acres. 

That, too, was another five-year process. And if you watched that one unfold, you’ll remember the advocates for redeveloping the bayfront engaged the city’s residents and taxpayers in dozens of discussions to hear what they had to say and to use those voices to create a vision for The Bay. There’s a lesson there.

We’ve been told by more than one person involved in the Longboat arts-culture center process that it involved the town’s elected officials; town administrators; Ringling College leaders and board members; Longboat Key Foundation board members; “community leaders”; and philanthropists. One group was missing. As a former town commissioner told us Tuesday: “What’s wrong with letting the public know and getting its thoughts?”

 

Find a way

What’s next? 

A grassy knoll with a band shell is not the answer. Longboat Key still needs what it had before — an arts and education center with facilities and classrooms for a variety of art forms; a place to accommodate lectures, speakers, music, art shows and public forums. Former Vice Mayor David Brenner told us he envisioned a campus setting on the Amore site with multiple buildings, not a monolithic blob.

We continue to believe it’s possible, and the less the town is involved, the better. Governments are lousy developers and stewards of property and businesses. Why not a Longboat conservancy?

When the original Longboat Key Art Center began in 1952, it was the vision of Longbeach residents Grace Yerkes, Lora Whitney and Allis Ferguson. Gordon and Lora Whitney donated the land in the Village, and about a dozen volunteers raised money. The group borrowed $14,000 to get it started, and its first building came from the donated labor of Longboat contractors and volunteers. There was no government involved, only enthusiastic Longboaters.

It’s wishful to think that can happen again with the current taxpayer-owned property. But it’s not wishful to gin up public enthusiasm for what could be and to make it happen.

While Ringling College has “reconsidered its involvement at this time,” President Thompson said in the college’s announcement “Ringling College remains committed to supporting the educational and cultural needs of the town of Longboat Key.” He spoke about other venues available elsewhere. But he left the future open to finish the vision.

For those who believe in the vision, it’s not a time to give up. Do the post-mortem on both sides. Compare, converse and search for solutions. If two parties really want something to happen, they’ll find a way. A better way.

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