As historic preservation advocates recommend against demolishing the bayfront building, one group sees it as a potential museum site.
In 2016, as the city considered knocking down the former Gulfcoast Wonder and Imagination Zone at 1001 Boulevard of the Arts, the city’s Historic Preservation Board made a case against demolition.
In a recommendation to the City Commission, the advisory board argued the 33,444-square-foot structure was architecturally significant and the city should search for a tenant in hopes of offsetting the cost of renovations.
On Tuesday, the Historic Preservation Board said not much has changed in the past two years. The GWIZ building faces demolition as part of the proposed redevelopment of more than 50 acres of city-owned bayfront land. And the Historic Preservation Board made another recommendation to the commission opposing the idea of demolishing the building, which has been vacant since 2013.
The Historic Preservation Board is part of a group of preservation advocates who are hoping the city will find a way to maintain and repurpose the GWIZ building, originally built as the Selby Library in 1976. Although the building isn’t designated as historic, this group sees it as an important part of the community.
The Bay Sarasota, an independent group developing a master plan for the land around the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, is proposing the demolition of the GWIZ building in its latest concept for the site. As the group prepares to present its plan to the City Commission in September, it has said community input led to the decision not to preserve the GWIZ building.
Based on the feedback the group has collected, it said few residents asked to keep the GWIZ building. In contrast, an overwhelming majority of the public expressed an interest in more open space and access to the water. That, combined with the costs associated with rehabilitating the building, is why The Bay is not including the structure in its long-term plan.
Members of the Historic Preservation Board cited city research that said the building would need hundreds of thousands of dollars in immediate improvements to fix the roof and air conditioning system. They said it could need around $10 million in improvements to make it viable for a new tenant. Despite the costs, the board believes the structure is not appropriate for demolition.
“I’m not discounting that,” board member Christopher Wilson said of the challenges associated with the site. “I’m just saying, ensure the retention and preservation of the building, which represents the city’s architectural heritage. Yes, it’s going to cost a lot of money. But then, that’s for another discussion.”
The board hoped the city would begin a new search for a tenant for the bayfront building. If the city followed through on that recommendation, at least one group would be interested.
Jim Gumpert, chairman of the Sarasota County Historical Commission, thinks the GWIZ building would be an ideal fit for a county history museum. His pitch: The Heritage Museum of Sarasota County, a place where the community’s past can be honored and celebrated.
“Here is this opportunity to really put a punch into the cultural district,” Gumpert said. “This is an incredible opportunity. We’re just not getting the traction.”
He said it would serve a pressing need. The county is out of room for its historic archives, declining to add items to its collection because it’s lacking space. And he said there’s community interest in pursuing the concept, stating there is $10 million in private funding pledged toward the idea.
He said the school district has expressed interest in an educational partnership, bringing elementary students into the museum as part of the local curriculum. He believes the museum, if successfully executed, could be an income generator. He admits he hasn’t looked at non-bayfront sites for the museum concept, but he said the GWIZ building seemed like such a natural fit that it would be a shame not to pursue it.
One group that hasn’t expressed a desire to further explore the idea, Gumpert said, is The Bay. Gumpert was frustrated the museum proposal hadn’t really penetrated the public consciousness. He understood why residents would prefer open space to a vacant building, but he thinks the conversation would shift if they were presented the option of pursuing a history museum.
Although The Bay said the majority of the community hasn’t raised any concerns about the proposition of demolishing the GWIZ building, Gumpert is part of a persistent group that says the structure has a future worth fighting for.
“It doesn’t make any sense at all to us,” Gumpert said. “There’s this incredible building, this architecturally significant building, and we have the perfect repurpose for it.”