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UPDATE: Town to buy Amore property

The $2.2 million deal will add another two acres to the future site of the Longboat Center for Arts, Culture and Education.

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  • | 7:20 a.m. January 24, 2017
Real estate investor Howard Rooks has offered his two-acre Amore property to the town of Longboat key for $2.2 million.
Real estate investor Howard Rooks has offered his two-acre Amore property to the town of Longboat key for $2.2 million.
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It was a close call that became a live negotiation, but the Longboat Key Town Commission voted Monday to buy the two-acre Amore property for the coming Arts, Cultural and Education Center.

Vice Mayor Phill Younger cast the deciding vote for the town to buy the property from prominent investor Howard Rooks for $2.2 million, after lamenting the price tag. Originally intending to vote against the proposal, he changed his vote after noting the absence of Commissioner Irwin Pastor.

“I'm really, really bothered about standing in the way of what I think a commission would do,” Younger said. “I’m going to gag on this when I get home, but I’ll change my damn mind and I’ll vote yes for the thing.”

The move required a super majority of the Town Commission, meaning if Younger followed fellow Commissioner Armando Linde with a dissenting vote, the deal would be dead.

“I am concerned about taking it off taxpayer rolls,” Younger said, after Town Manager Bullock stated the Amore land generates more than $2,600 in Longboat taxes and assessments.

The purchase means the town will have a better frontage and entrance for the cultural center, as well as more opportunities to add parking — Amore has 89 parking spaces. Also, the additional land would allow for water features and an outdoor venue, said Longboat Key Foundation Arts, Culture and Education Building Task Force Chairman Warren Simonds.

“Frankly, I’m really, really sad about selling it, because I love the building so much and we’ve built such a heck of a fine client base,” said Rooks. “But we all know what its like in the middle of summer and restaurants are tough there.”

The Foundation, which has spearheaded the cultural center efforts, plans to raise the money to fund construction of the building and potentially seek endowments to supplement operating costs, Simonds said. Ringling College will run the facility, which the town will also use for public meetings.

“I think it’s going to be one of the most significant things to happen on Longboat Key ever,” Simonds said.

Still, Younger and Linde — despite voicing strong support for the project as a whole and potential purchase of the property — thought the parcel was overpriced, and during a workshop hours before the final vote instructed Town Manager Dave Bullock to call Rooks and see if he was willing to negotiate. The town had to appraisals on the land which yielded an average value of $2.1 million.

 Rooks wasn’t interested in negotiating further.

Younger, though eventually voting in favor of the purchase, said he worried the deal, for which the town will draw funds from the $2.7 million available in the town’s land acquisition fund, may lead to a slippery slope of other land buys.

“Where does this stuff stop?” he asked.

The Foundation won’t start its formal fundraising push until after architects and contractors have been chosen to determine an estimate for the project. But, Simonds said doors could open in two years, though he’s hesitant to identify a more refined timeline.

“We want to make sure we don’t have to go back to a donor and say, ‘can you write another check again’,” Simonds said. “Because, that’s really embarrassing.”

As for Rooks, he’s currently in the market to buy another restaurant, to which he can transplant his staff. But Amore won’t officially close until the end of May.

Before the vote, Mayor Terry Gans urged fellow commissioners to look to the future in making their decision.

“I think this is the right one,” he said. “I also feel in 2040 if we do have a town center no one’s going to remember or appreciate the fact that we got $50,000 less or $200,000 (less).”

Earlier: This year, Longboat Key might lose a popular gathering place for island residents. But it would gain another two acres for what the town hopes to be a new hub of activity.

Town Commissioners during a workshop and special meeting Monday will consider spending $2.2 million to buy Amore from investor Howard Rooks. The property, which sits next to 2.8 acres the town already owns, would become part of the Longboat Key Center for Arts, Culture and Education.

“Frankly, I’m really, really sad about selling it, because I love the building so much and we’ve built such a heck of a fine client base,” said Rooks. “But we all know what its like in the middle of summer and restaurants are tough there.”

In December, the Town Commission extended a memorandum of understanding with Ringling College of Art and Design calling for the school to conduct an architectural program to identify functions and costs for the current 2.8 acres.

If Longboat does acquire the property, it would provide the cultural center with more parking and open space, and create new opportunites for outdoor venues, said Town Manager Dave Bullock in a memo to commissioners. 

The town would tap into the $2.7 million in its land acquisition and improvement fund, which draws its revenue from development fees, for the purchase.

Harbour Links resident David Novak was one of the only speakers who voiced concerns about the town’s original $1.5 million purchase of the property next to Amore in March 2014. He urged town commissioners at the time to consider waiting for the opportunity to buy both properties at once due to concerns about elevation, and the fact that buying only one would cause the neighboring owner to raise their asking price above fair market value.

Now, he thinks the town is getting a good deal.

“I think having the two properties together is much better because you’re very limited in what you can do if you just have the one property,” Novak said.

Amore has been operating out of the building at 555 Bay Isles Parkway since 2014, after it sat vacant for seven years following the departure of Mattison’s Steakhouse. Rooks originally partnered with chef Andrea Bozzolo at the restaurant, but hired chef Angel Torres in October after Bozzolo left to focus on his other area eatery.

Although he gave his staff the news Tuesday, Rooks said he won’t look for another buyer if the town passes on the offer. Still, he hopes to find another option for his staff if town commissioners agree on the sale.

“It’s been a fun experience,” Rooks said. “But I also realize that nothing lasts forever, and if the town does buy the building then if I can find another good location I’ll just move the restaurant and keep the same staff.”


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