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Longboat Key Sunday, Dec. 1, 2019 1 week ago

With one button, Longboat illuminates Town Center's future

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Tree-lighting kicks off chamber events as leaders continue to discuss what's next.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

Three . . . two . . . one . . . (awkward momentary pause) . . . Longboat Key’s Town Center Green is in business following a successful tree-lighting event on Saturday evening.

Even with a competing TV slate of college-football rivalries, more than a hundred people came out on a shirt-sleeve weather evening to visit with Santa, grab a snack or a glass of wine and count down to a dazzling holiday display.

Town Manager Tom Harmer and Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce President Gail Loefgren push the button on to light the trees.

After the push of a remote control button, and an instant of nervous electronic delay, Town Manager Tom Harmer closed the circuit on not only a dazzling holiday display built around stately live oaks but also months of planning and discussion among town leaders about what to do with the former Amore Restaurant property and an adjoining town-owned parcel.

The immediate future is clear: the town and the Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce are reprising a popular concert series called Savor the Sounds, which will begin in January and run on four Saturdays through April.

Sloane Hardy, 4, got the first dance with Santa on Saturday night. Sloane, of Carlsbad, Calif., was visiting relatives over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Construction is also set to begin in the new year on the adjoining three acres to create a level, contiguous piece of land between the Shops of Bay Isles, the Public Tennis Center and commercial buildings along Bay Isles Road. It is meant to be suitable for a wide variety of outdoor events, with room for a stage, food trucks and other temporary facilities.

Beyond that, Town Commissioners in November discussed what the following months might begin to look like while still pursuing a long-term goal of something grander.

“Do we know what’s going to happen here, no,’’ Harmer told the crowd Saturday. “Do we know we’re going to have events that gather our community for things like tree lighting and concerts? There’s a lot more coming.’’

The town has permits to get the earth-moving and smoothing done, along with repairs to the former restaurant’s crumbling parking lot.  

Tents were set up by Longboat Key's Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Garden Club, Chamber of Commerce and the town's government.

Nothing else is as yet scheduled, but Tom Freiwald of the town’s Revitalization Task Force, said the time has arrived to set some standards for the future. The Task Force has also been working with the chamber on logistical matters related to the Town Center Green, which he said, will exist no matter what event is held there.

“Everybody wants this outdoor venue to succeed,’’ he told commissioners at a November workshop. “And you only have one chance to make a first impression.”

Freiwald said the Task Force recommends a template of sorts with which groups can plan events. Such a template might include recommendations on stage locations, rental sources for temporary bathrooms and other components, so that “everyone who wants to do an event doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel.’’

Longboat Key Garden Club's Susan Phillips and Phyllis Black.

The idea is to help organizers create successful events that will reflect positively on the town and encourage others to consider the site.  

Elle Robinson chats with Santa.

Harmer said the town will likely learn with each event and apply those lessons to whatever event is next in line.

“We have a vested interest in that we have spent many millions of dollars,’’ Mayor George Spoll said at the November workshop. “Any foul up would make our job harder.’’

Town leaders are adamant that permanent structures should be avoided while they get a better handle on what citizens want and what kind of events organizers propose.

The goal of a public-private partnership to build some kind of community center, recreation center or arts, culture and education building remains alive, but completely unfunded and without firm direction.

The land parcels were purchased to accommodate a vision of a privately financed arts and education center, planned, built and operated in partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design.

In April, Ringling reconsidered the partnership. College President Larry Thompson said negative feedback about the project from some quarters would make raising the approximately $11 million difficult.

Since then, the town has focused on activating the land with a minimum of permanent improvements, keeping future options open.

“I’m never going to argue for anything permanent at this point,’’ Spoll said. “It seems to me that what is being asked for is quite reasonable and even necessary and not out of order.’’

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