- February 20, 2019
Don’t be surprised if sometime soon, someone asks your opinion of what should or shouldn’t be built on the Town Center land, roughly bounded by Bay Isles Road and Parkway, the Public Tennis Center and the north end of the Shops of Bay Isles.
An outdoor venue with bathrooms, a stage, and crushed shell pathways?
An outdoor venue with fewer amenities?
A building for educational, cultural and arts events?
A recreation center?
Some kind of multi-purpose building that accomplishes many, it not all, of those roles and possibly others? Maybe two buildings in a campus setting?
The 4.8-acre plot and its ultimate best use have been points of contention since April when Ringling College of Art and Design broke off a relationship with the town for joint development of an Arts, Culture and Education Center to be funded with about $11 million in privately raised capital.
Left with land that cost the town $3.7 million, Town Commissioners have been considering various paths forward ever since.
Adding to the discussion’s complexity of late has been an acknowledgement that the town’s recreation center in Bayfront Park is aging and likely will need replacing in years to come. Also, a more recent desire to build new pickleball courts (and possibly repositioned free-to-use tennis courts) has added to the question of priorities at the award-winning, mid-island park.
This coming season, town staffers are planning to solicit public input on the short-term and longer-term paths forward possibly in a workshop or forum-type setting.
For now, plans are moving ahead to create a basic village-green site at the Town Center, useful for a range of low-impact outdoor activities. The Longboat Key Chamber of Commerce has already expressed interest in putting the land to use in a series of monthly events in 2020.
Also this coming season, the town plans to ask a series of longer-range questions that will include preferences for more permanent facilities and how to pay for them: ranging from public financing options to private options and combinations in between.
The idea is to present Town Commissioners with the findings and a schedule of potential costs, though nothing is currently funded beyond the basic land work.
From there, a more informed discussion can take place.
"The second piece of public input with the community center is more of a long term look because that will more than likely require some kind of partnership or donor effort because that’s currently unfunded,’’ said Isaac Brownman, the town’s public works director.
In discussing the possibilities at a recent workshop, Town Commissioners said they generally supported a notion for some kind of building on the site to accommodate the same kind of activities once envisioned for the Ringling-run proposal.
And there was agreement that the Recreation Center should be retained as long as possible in Bayfront Park, and possibly replaced with an all-in-one structure at the Town Center or as separate building there.
Brownman said towns are beginning to trend toward single structures that can accommodate everything from arts classes to Zumba activities.
“If designed properly, a community center can incorporate all the elements desired,’’ he said.
Vice Mayor Ed Zunz said it was critical the Recreation Center be kept open for as long as possible. Commissioner Mike Haycock said it was unrealistic the town could build two structures on its own.
Before their summer break, Commissioners were asked their preferences moving forward.
In those responses, there was broad support for an initial use of the outdoor venue and an effort to make sure the public was adequately heard from on future proposals. Commissioner Randy Clair and others went so far as to say they hesitate to back specific proposals until the public’s views have been gathered.
“I believe that one of the reasons that the renovations of Bayfront Park have been so successful is that the town and Sarasota County sought the input of our residents during the planning stage,’’ he wrote.