Michael Drake is leading the effort to finally purchase land for the historical society museum.
Right now, if you were to walk or drive past 521 Broadway on Longboat Key, you’d see two old, white, paint-chipped buildings – ramshackle yet sturdy – that hold an old dream inside.
Right now, if Historical Society President Michael Drake were to open the door for you, you would be greeted by buzzing wasps; you would breathe the hot, thick but pleasant-smelling air; you would see what a dream in the midst of revival looks like.
It isn’t exactly pretty. Loose lumber, tools, tin, doors, building and cleaning supplies, torn-up ceilings and boarded up windows. But signs of optimism, a bright blue wall with illustrations in white chalk and a grey, oval-shaped sign with the words “Welcome LONGBOAT KEY HISTORICAL SOCIETY MUSEUM Est. 1980,” decorate the main room of the first building.
Finding history a home
In a town so connected to the past, a historical society museum would seem a natural fit. But the Longboat Key Historical Society Museum has been defunct since 2012, with the society itself, besides a digital archiving undertaking and scattered events, essentially inoperative.
The society is searching for between $450,000 and $600,000 to own and operate the unused site of their museum. The society has between $175,000 and $180,000 on-hand from private fundraising efforts, which is at least $300,000 shy of both owning the necessary land and fixing its two buildings.
In November of 2012, the historical society museum was closed after renting space in Whitney Plaza since 2008. In 2017, though, talk of a new museum surfaced. The thought was to have it built at the intersection of Broadway Street and Gulf of Mexico Drive, where a gas station operated and now where Whitney’s Restaurant will be. The Town Commission even discussed buying the land.
But later that year, according to Drake and Vice Mayor Ed Zunz, the former gas station spot came under contract for private sale, so the group of people who were trying to find a spot for two cottages on the property of the former Longboat Key Center for the Arts, including Zunz, didn’t know where to put them.
A developer looking to build homes on the former art center land gave them to the society with the understanding they would be moved by the time he needed them gone. But by that time, the town had soured on the idea of buying land across Broadway Street from the former gas station.
“My whole thing was, so if you have 450 (thousand dollars) for that corner, why not this corner?” Drake said.
Zunz said acquiring the land would have served the dual purpose of ridding the "eyesore" of the former gas station from the island and of helping the historical society. Without that dual purpose, buying the land was no longer as appealing.
The society dealt with yet another hiccup recently when Greg Ciccolo, the man who owns the land the society is currently leasing to keep their two Whitney Beach cottages, became interested in purchasing apartments nearby. Ciccolo wrote a letter to the society stating that he doesn’t want to move forward with the society's eventual purchase of the land. Drake and the society were faced with moving houses again, before they’d even made a home.
But the deal didn’t take, and Drake is again negotiating with Ciccolo, who now wants more than the agreed-upon $450,000.
Drake is now planning a new push for the town to buy the land for the society.
“I think it’s high time that the town of Longboat Key gets behind the Longboat Key Historical Society,” Drake said. “How they can do that is they can purchase the land. If they purchase the land today, we still have a fairly good sum of money to get these places opened by the first of the year.”
Drake is targeting the traditional summer window when the commission goes on recess to lobby for his idea.
“I do not believe that that would receive a great deal of support,” Longboat Key Mayor George Spoll said. “One never knows, but the town is not loaded with cash for park purposes.”
“God bless him for doing what he did, but he’s gotten very little support,” Spoll added of the fundraising. Zunz also thought the quest a long shot given the money the town already has tied up in various projects.
Once commissioners are back from recess, Drake intends to file a formal request.
If Drake does indeed file such a petition, “There is nothing around in the way of dollars, not only to make a new purchase, but there’s nothing there to even complete the town center,” Spoll said. “Now if the Colony were to move ahead, then there’s gonna be a certain amount of money. But that’s already being spoken for, so I’m not sure where the funds would come from.”
“I think it’s high time that the town of Longboat Key gets behind the Longboat Key Historical Society.” – Michael Drake
As for specific plans for the property, Drake envisions the first building as a museum/meeting space the society and other groups can use and possibly rent out. The first building is for fundraising efforts to get the second building running as well. Drake wants the second building to act as a sort of art gallery.
“I always wanted that building as a nod to the art center,” Drake said. “We brought a lot of artists from around the world to this little piece of dirt.”
Learning from the past
Former historical society president Tom Mayers was one of the organization’s first members. His mother, Fran Mayers, was a founding member and the first president.
“My mother told me I had to be a member,” Mayers said.
When the society began in the 1980s, according to Mayers, there was no museum or meeting place, so members met in the Mayerses’ home.
Mayers said that when society founder Ralph Hunter was getting older, he tried to bring in people to formalize the body. Hunter asked Mayers to be involved because of his native status and his past with the society.
After five years on the board and two as president, Mayers decided to step away from the society once it moved out of Whitney Beach Plaza. The group left that space due to a lack of foot traffic.
In its most recent years of concentrated activity, Mayers describes a split and confused society that wanted to dissolve the storefront and put everything that was there in storage. He recounts becoming frustrated because the society wasn’t able to recoup its value for exceptional speakers. But Mayers loves the society and hopes Drake and others are lucky in their bid to revive it.
“All I can say is I wish him the best, and I know how difficult it is,” Mayers said. “My mother, who’s one of my favorite people in the world, would say the most profound things in the simplest way. She’d say, ‘Any progress in any direction is simply remarkable.’”
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