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Ringling College reconsiders role with Longboat Key in arts center proposal

Town plans to move forward on existing plan to build outdoor venue adjacent to Town Hall.

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  • | 8:42 p.m. April 29, 2019
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Ringling College of Art and Design told Longboat Key leaders late last week the college is reconsidering a venture with the town to develop the proposed Arts, Culture and Education Center.

In an announcement released Monday, Ringling President Larry Thompson cited  “negative feedback” and its likely effect on fundraising for the privately financed project. The college had been working with the Longboat Key Foundation on raising $11.3 million for the project, intended to be built on land just east of the town’s main shopping plaza, adjacent to Town Hall.

Larry Thompson
Larry Thompson

For weeks, Mayor George Spoll, Vice Mayor Ed Zunz and others have called for slower progress and more public input before approving a pre-construction memorandum of understanding between the college and the town, meant to establish basic facts, areas of responsibility and other expectations.

"This increasingly negative feedback that we have received has led us to conclude that the raising of the philanthropic dollars needed to create this Center, even at the lower cost, is not probable at this time.”


Larry Thompson,
President of Ringling College of Art and Design

Resistance to the wording of the document in a Town Commission meeting on April 1 led to a split vote against its approval amid questions of trust and why the Ringling-run Longboat Key Center for the Arts, which closed in 2017 on north end of the island, wasn’t able to continue operating. 

Members of the public posed similar questions. Commissioners raised other objections, seeking rewritten portions of the document. No agreement on a revised document ever came. In an email to commissioners on Monday,  

“Unfortunately, this questioning of the desire for the Center and even potential opposition to it significantly hampers the potential for success of the project at this time,’’ Thompson said. “This increasingly negative feedback that we have received has led us to conclude that the raising of the philanthropic dollars needed to create this Center, even at the lower cost, is not probable at this time.”

Spoll said he was “not really surprised” by the decision.   “As I tried to say, there was a well of resentment.”

Commissioner Mike Haycock, one of three who voted to approve the memorandum, said he was disappointed. “I thought we had consensus to move forward.''

Originally envisioned as including studio space, classrooms, a computer lab and a multi-purpose black box theater, the Arts, Culture and Education Center has long been considered by town leaders as a potential anchor of a “town center” concept. Since 2017, the proposal has been eagerly anticipated as a replacement for the popular north-end  Center for the Arts, demolished that summer after Ringling sold the property for $1.85 million to a home developer.

 Earlier this year, Thompson appeared before Town Commissioners to say it was doubtful the needed $18.5 million could be raised for the original concept and recommended removing the black box theater, possibly holding open the option of adding it as a Phase 2 and lowering the fundraising goal to a more likely $11.3 million. Some of the excitement about the project evaporated at that point, Spoll said.

“The sizzle on the steak was the black box theater,’’ Spoll said. “There’s where the initial enthusiasm was.’’

Both Spoll and Haycock said the next logical step for the town is to move forward with its plan to construct an open, green space on the land, suitable for gatherings, performances and other public events. From there, the town can gauge residents' interest. 

Haycock said he laments the likely loss of a site for adult education and access to indoor weather-proof facilities. 

“In the next six months to a year, we’re going to have to figure out the best possible usage of that site for our residents,’’ he said.

Work is progressing on  land clearing and grading, with permitting underway on the green site. The town had planned to use the space in the interim while funds were raised for the center. Now, as a possible finished product, proposals have been floated by residents to upgrade the plan, with semi-permanent infrastructure that could provide shade for performers and audience members, with some plumbing and electrical service and possible facilities for lights and sound.

Spoll said the “timeout” afforded by Ringling’s announcement is in the best interests of the town. Haycock said moving in that direction, given the new reality, is the right thing to do.

“The focus right now needs to be making that site into something we’re proud of,’’ he said.

Thompson said the college remains committed to the “educational and cultural needs of the Town of Longboat Key.’’

“The Longboat Key community will have full access to the new Ringling College Museum Campus beginning in September 2019, where lifelong learning and adult art education classes will be conducted through our School of Continuing Studies and in December 2019, when the Sarasota Art Museum opens, even more educational opportunities for the people of Longboat Key will be available,’’ he said in the announcement. “Additionally, the College looks forward to the opportunities to support offerings at the outdoor venue being developed at the Longboat Key Town Center and will continue its engagement with numerous local arts, cultural, and educational programs and activities at established and future venues in the community.”


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