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Manatee County explores transforming commercial space in Whitney Plaza

The potential Longboat Key Community Center would be located in Whitney Plaza's largest building, at 6810 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
The potential Longboat Key Community Center would be located in Whitney Plaza's largest building, at 6810 Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer
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Approval of the consent agenda at Manatee County’s July 25 commission meeting could mean a big investment in Longboat Key’s community. 

The largest building in Whitney Beach Plaza may soon be revitalized and transformed into a community center, in a collaborative initiative between Manatee County and the School District of Manatee County to give back to the Longboat Key community. 

The town of Longboat Key held a community discussion on July 12 to brainstorm ideas for what residents would want to see in this possible community space. Town Manager Howard Tipton said his hope is that Manatee County wouldn’t design the space without community input. 

“It would be designed for the island, it would be designed for the residents here,” Tipton said. “Conversations will help drive the design of the programming.” 

Hal Porter, current owner of Whitney Beach Plaza, can rent the 6,000-square-foot commercial space at 6810 Gulf of Mexico Drive to anyone. But Porter said he thinks the agreement with Manatee County would be good for everyone. 

If the lease is approved, the space would look rough in the first year, mainly due to necessary buildout, said Tipton. After that, he said there is a lot of potential in this lease agreement. 

“I think you have the opportunity to have something that shows community investment back into the island, and creates an opportunity for some gathering, some learning and socializing,” Tipton said. 

One of the reasons the space is desirable for Manatee County, Porter said, is because it already has some of the necessary facilities. For example, the building has two handicapped bathrooms, which Porter said are generally expensive to install. He said the county could perform any aesthetic design it would want, without much building cost. 

At the community meeting, some residents provided input about what programming they would like to see. Suggestions included computer classes, art classes, knitting, mahjong, chess, a golf simulator and exercise classes.The space could also accommodate meeting space for groups such as Suncoast Waterkeeper and Longboat Key Turtle Watch. 

Tipton sees this as an opportunity to appeal to many demographics on Longboat Key. Being operated by the school board, educational classes could be an integral part of the programming. According to Tipton, there are about 42 students on the Manatee County side of the island.  

At the community discussion on July 12, residents were invited to share ideas about what programming they would like to see in a community center.
Photo by Carter Weinhofer

North island residents also brought up concerns. One concern residents raised was what would happen if the space isn’t successful. Some north island residents mentioned previous unsuccessful ventures in the space, like an art studio. Porter assured residents that the property is trusted to his sons. They plan to stick around for a while, and the family wants their investment to be successful. 

Parking was another concern, which residents feared will be a problem as the community center attracts people to the plaza. Porter tried to assure residents that parking will not be an issue at all. He said there are plenty of spots available, and the current plaza tenants don't have much overlap in operating hours. 

Mike Condensa is one of the owners of Performance Pilates, a tenant for a year and a half in Whitney Beach Plaza. Condensa is at the plaza more frequently than Porter and doesn’t see parking being an issue either, he said. He said the only business currently open at night is Ventura's Italian Kitchen & Wine Bar, Chubby’s Lounge and sometimes Pilates classes. 

Overall, he is optimistic about the potential lease with the county. 

“This is so flexible that over five years, this is a win-win for everyone there. I’m all for it,” Condensa said. 

Years in the making

The discussions about Manatee County investing in Longboat Key precede Tipton and begin with Maureen Merrigan. Merrigan was appointed to the Town Commission in 2021 to fill a vacancy and served in that position for a year before becoming vice mayor for another year. 

According to Merrigan, the north end of the island became more organized about four or five years ago, with the foundation of Longboat North. This is a group of about 30 homeowners associations and condos to which each association appoints a representative. Almost three years ago, Longboat North began talking about the need for community meeting space on the island. 

“From the get-go, it was a community ask, not a town ask,” Merrigan said. 

Merrigan then began talks with Manatee County Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge. Van Ostenbridge and Merrigan discussed the community’s needs for a town center, and Van Ostenbridge identified the space at Whitney Plaza. 

That’s when former Longboat Key Town Manager Tom Harmer and former Manatee County Administrator Scott Hopes began shaping ideas for what the space could look like. 

Merrigan said the community center at Whitney Plaza would solve two problems she saw at the time. The building at Bayfront Park is getting older, she said, and having a new space would push back the need to rebuild or continue investments in the older Bayfront building. Secondly, Merrigan said spreading out community programming to a new community center would alleviate the parking pressures faced at Bayfront Park because of high pickleball demand. 

Manatee County had a lease agreement ready to go, according to Merrigan. But in February 2023, Hopes left his position with Manatee County at the same time Harmer’s time with Longboat Key came to an end. During the shuffling of staff, Merrigan said the town was advised Manatee County would no longer pursue the project. 

After that, Merrigan sent an email expressing disappointment in the decision. Van Ostenbridge then said that the county would continue looking into it, and would ask the school board for assistance. The deal had been sparked again. 

Now the decision is up to Manatee County. On July 25, the county will look to approve a motion to draft an interlocal agreement with the school district to operate the Longboat Key Community Center. Tipton assured residents that the July 12 meeting was the first of many conversations.  



Carter Weinhofer

Carter Weinhofer is the Longboat Key news reporter for the Observer. Originally from a small town in Pennsylvania, he moved to St. Petersburg to attend Eckerd College until graduating in 2023. During his entire undergraduate career, he worked at the student newspaper, The Current, holding positions from science reporter to editor-in-chief.

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