- April 23, 2021
Ringling College of Art and Design President Larry Thompson insists he does not have any ill will toward the town of Longboat Key two years after backing away from a developing agreement to build and operate an arts, culture and education center on the island.
Still, though, Thompson said it is unlikely such an agreement will be rekindled, based on financial and organizational realities that didn’t exist in 2019.
In April 2019, following a 4-3 commission vote to reject and rewrite preliminary framework documents, Ringling stepped back from the town after years of discussion about building the center on the island’s Town Center site. The facility was to be a privately financed gathering place, operated by the college with the town as a landlord. It would have required about $11.32 million in donations.
“Failure isn’t a negative because that’s how you become more creative,” Thompson said.
On Feb. 16, town commissioners are scheduled to continue a discussion on what to consider building at the site. Commissioners differ on what specifically a Town Center entails, though there is broad agreement on not spending tax dollars to build a facility.
The town is looking for a private partner to operate whatever kind of structure gets built. Thompson mentioned the financial effects of the pandemic as to why Ringling likely will not return, at least for the short-term future.
“It’s a very tough time for higher [education] in terms of finances, so as I told the town manager, I mean, I never say never, but it certainly is not probable right now at all,” he said.
Ringling just completed several projects that Thompson said fulfills much of the same programming as would have been directed to Longboat Key. It includes the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the college’s Studio and Digital Arts studies, Englewood Art Center and the Sarasota Art Museum at the historical Sarasota High site.
“There’s studio arts being taught there. [There are] ceramics being taught there, which was a huge thing out at the north center,” Thompson said of the Ringling-run Longboat Key Center for Arts, which closed in 2017. “It was something we were looking at doing in the Town Center, but now we’re to put that studio at the former [Sarasota High] and then also other things in photography and so on and forth that are taught there.”
Recently, Commissioner Jack Daly distributed to fellow commissioners (two of whom were not on the commission in 2019) the final concept plans from the proposal with Ringling. He said he hopes the town rekindles its relationship with the college but acknowledged the possibility of finding a different partner.
“I think the time is long overdue, particularly since we’ve lost our partner here, to rekindle the concept, and the best starting point that I see is exhibit one that we were on the brink of going forward with when our partner left,” Daly said.
Even if Ringling doesn’t raise the money for a new Town Center or participate in its development, Thompson left open the possibility for the college to bring occasional visiting programs there.
Thompson said the Center for the Arts, which was demolished to make way for single-family homes on Longboat Drive South and Hibiscus Way in Longbeach Village, was too far removed from most residents to operate well. “It’s like driving to New Jersey or something,” he said.
Questions about the Center for the Arts and how it was closed and sold became part of the discussion in 2019 as commissioners debated agreements with Ringling. The land was sold for $1.85 million, but Thompson in 2019 said the center lost more money than it was able to generate.
“It would take quite a bit because the soil is spoiled,” Thompson said. “It would take a real change and the feelings about it and the excitement that we had because it’s like rolling a giant rock uphill now.”
In the town’s 2020 community survey, 51% of Longboat respondents said they would support a privately funded arts, culture and education center, with 24% saying they were unsure.
Commissioners have also been considering the possibilities of replacing the Bayfront Park Recreation Center and how a Sarasota County public library might someday be added to the town. All of those roles could be mixed into a potential Town Center building, or buildings. Land on the 4.8-acre site is being set aside as the rest of the acreage is developed into an outdoor venue.
Work to add outdoor amenities is expected to take place in 2021, though environmental permits for that work are under consideration with the potential for buildings in mind.
“Quite frankly, you can’t raise money in an environment where [there are] huge amounts of uncertainty and not a positive feeling about it,” Thompson said.
Commissioner George Spoll and Daly, who have been serving for much of the time the ACE building has been under consideration, are leaving elected service in March. Two new commissioners, Penny Gold and Debra Williams, take office March 22.
Even with the new commissioners, the town will likely have to find a new partner, Thompson said.
“It would be very, very, very difficult, but I never say never forever because it might be something that could potentially be done in the future, but it’s going to take some time for that land to be repaired and that rock to move up,” Thompson said. “Quite frankly, there’s some bad taste in the mouth.”