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Stakes rise on town center

The town’s acquisition of the Amore restaurant property makes sense for the development of a town cultural center. But it now raises important questions.

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  • | 8:44 a.m. January 26, 2017
The town of Longboat Key bought Howard Rooks'    2.2 acre Amore restaurant property on Bay Isle Road for  $2.2 million.
The town of Longboat Key bought Howard Rooks' 2.2 acre Amore restaurant property on Bay Isle Road for $2.2 million.
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“Where does this stuff stop?” 

Yes, that’s the right question.

Longboat Key Vice Mayor Phill Younger asked that Monday at a Town Commission meeting, after he had voted in favor of the town spending $2.2 million to buy Howard Rooks’ 2.2-acre Amore restaurant property on Bay Isles Road.

Probably everyone who likes the idea of Longboat Key having a town center with an arts, cultural and education center would agree that property will be crucial to the grand scheme. For one, it’s adjacent to the vacant, wooded parcel the town purchased for $1.5 million in 2014. And controlling the two obviously will make it easier to configure the development of a cultural center.

All along — especially after the town purchased the vacant parcel — the acquisition of the Amore property appeared inevitable. In spite of Rooks’ success at building a following at Amore, he repeatedly has noted the challenge every retail business owner wrestles with on the Key — seasonality. What would you do if you were Rooks: Slog it out every summer with losses and laying off staff, or take some cash and get rid of headaches?

Longboaters will be sorry to see Amore go, but they get it.

For Longboat Key taxpayers, the stakes are now rising on the cultural center idea. You can see leaders of the Longboat Key Foundation (supporters of the center) and representatives of the Ringling College of Art and Design, which is a partner with the town on the project, are eager to move forward. That’s especially so now that they have the land. 

And why not? The land didn’t cost them a dime. The money came from the town’s land acquisition fund, a ransom that is exacted as a tax on  developers and their customers by the town when they build on Longboat.

But from this point forward, the Town Commission will face important questions. Will the town be the developer of the town center? Or will it lease the property to a developer or developers? Or will it sell the property to a town-center developer? Who will govern how and what is developed — the Town Commission? A development authority? The list of unanswered questions is long.

Which hearkens back to Vice Mayor Younger’s question: “Where does this stuff stop?” Everyone knows governments are lousy developers and rarely good at managing real estate. 

Add this to the Town Commission list: Figuring out how to bring a cultural center to fruition without committing taxpayers to a black hole of endless subsidies to keep it afloat and thriving.

How to fund a bridge

Our mainland friends like to shoot arrows and insults at Longboat Key when they hear Longboat residents moan about traffic. 

You know the snipes: “Hey, you chose to live there. Too bad.” Or: “Quit whining, you privileged (fill in the blank).” Or: “Build your own bridge.”

We like the latter one. It could be done.

First, take a look at the accompanying excerpt from the late Ralph Hunter’s book, “From Calusas to Condominiums.” The subject of building a bridge directly to Longboat Key has simmered and boiled and sat on shelves for 50 years.

As you will read, Longboaters have favored building a bridge for a long time. But the same old red herrings pop up: Ecologically devastating. No money to pay for it.

In truth, Longboat Key residents and taxpayers could pay for two bridges connecting the Key to Manatee County on the north and Sarasota County on the south. And it could be done without tapping state funds or begging from the government trough.

The way to do it has some logic, but we also know it’s politically unlikely, most probably impossible. Nevertheless, here you go:

Longboat Key should secede from Manatee and Sarasota counties, and establish Florida’s 68th county. And then, instead of establishing a public-school system on the Key, Longboat Key would contract with the Sarasota and Manatee public schools, making the commitment to provide the tax dollars necessary for each Longboat child attending public schools.

That would leave the majority of the $30 million-plus Longboat Key taxpayers send annually to Manatee and Sarasota counties’ school systems to fund the construction and debt payments on the new bridges. 

Once built, Longboat Key would then own the bridges and charge tolls to use them.

But we dream on.

To secede, Longboat Key would need approval first from the Sarasota and Manatee county commissions, and then the Legislature.

Like we said, dream on.


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