- July 9, 2021
When Longboat Key leaders approached Sarah and Paul Karon to ask the philanthropic couple about naming rights for the proposed Town Center stage earlier this year, the topic immediately whisked the couple back to Lake Harriet Bandshell Park in Minneapolis.
“I thought about our bandshell because we lived in our same neighborhood for 25 years, and through the years, I mean, we had bike-a-thons, concerts and other events,” Sarah said. “It’s like an epicenter.”
So, it wasn't just some ordinary conversation about a run-of-the-mill government project when Paul, 59, first chatted with Longboat Key Mayor Ken Schneier.
“It really resonated with us about how much joy that pavilion gave our family and our neighborhood,” he said.
On Nov. 15, Town Manager Tom Harmer announced the Karons planned to donate up to $500,000 for the project. In exchange, the couple would like to name the structure “The Karon Family Pavilion.” Town Commissioners are expected to vote on the agreement Dec. 6.
“Everyone gives, and everyone chooses the places they want to give their talents and their time and their treasure,” Sarah Karon said.
It would be the largest single philanthropic contribution for the couple, who also contributed to the Veterans Resource Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Youth Facility at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Minnesota.
The couple moved in 2009 to Longboat Key before calling the island their full-time home in 2014. Sarah, 58, told her husband after moving that she wanted to make more of an effort to give locally.
Before retiring in his late 40s, Paul served as chairman and CEO of Benfield Group, which was sold to Chicago-based Aon Corp. for a reported $1.43 billion in 2008. He considers himself retired, but does some insurance business on the side and is chairman of a Fort Lauderdale-based company called Boatsetter. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of St. Thomas, his alma mater.
Sarah graduated from University of Iowa and launched her newspaper career at a daily in Wheaton, Illinois. She moved to Minnesota while working for Crain Communications and then Business Weekly.
Once the couple had their first child, Sarah stopped working. Soon after, she needed to find something to do. They have two daughters now.
“That’s why I started getting involved with nonprofit fundraising, and I have raised money for a lot of good causes,” she said.
It includes fundraising, grant-making and philanthropy for various Minnesota organizations. She is the vice president of the Library Foundation for Sarasota County.
“We believe in community,” Sarah said. “We have thrived in wonderful communities our whole life together.”
It's the reason she and her husband moved to Longboat Key.
“We have met so many wonderful people here, and everyone cares about this place,” Sarah said. “And now the town has created a vision to give us all kind of a center point on our compass where we can gather together, where we experience programs and happenings and family times and friendship times.”
Longboat Key leaders have discussed for years how to fund a town center and what exactly it would entail.
The couple met multiple times with town leaders, which included Schneier, Harmer and Longboat Key Foundation President and former Mayor Jim Brown. Paul Karon said it was a “delight” to work with them.
“They have been so professional and pragmatic and easy to work with and doing everything they could to get to ‘yes,’ which is not normal government,” Paul said. “It is not normal government.
“You can’t imagine (it) in Cook County, (Illinois). This would never happen.”
The plan is to build a 50-foot wide permanent stage between the Public Tennis Center and the Shoppes of Bay Isles. The town has several events planned at the site, which are set to begin at the end of the month and will operate around the construction. The new stage could be ready in time for next year’s snowbird season if all goes according to plan.
“It just fits with who we are,” Sarah said. “It fits with how our life has been enriched by community, and we just are excited to be doing it.”
The Karons are hopeful others are inspired by their contribution to the town.
“Part of the town vision for this site is that placing the pavilion and beginning the life of the park is going to spur other donors to come forward for the future projects,” Sarah said. “The sooner people decide that they want to invest in something like that on behalf of our community, the sooner we’re going to have even more abilities to enjoy that spot together.”
Although it would take time, it includes the possibility of finally getting a county-operated library and replacing the Recreation Center at Bayfront Park.
“We really do try and go to help people that need help, and provide things to people that might not always have them,” Paul said.