The recreation center building at Longboat Key's Bayfront Park hasn’t had a major face-lift since it opened.
This year may be the start of some progress, but if any major improvements are to happen, it won’t be a reality until further down the line.
The fiscal year 2024 budget includes $128,424 to revisit the design of a new recreation center at Bayfront Park, an idea that has had fluctuating interest in recent years.
This money, Town Manager Howard Tipton said, will contribute to preliminary planning.
“It'll be conceptual," he said. “And then our goal is to try and market that in the community to see if there's any private support.”
Tipton said the planning project is one of the longest-running on the town’s capital budget. The money in fiscal year 2024 is meant to remind staff that it’s still a possibility.
One of the recent ideas is an open-air concept that could potentially accommodate larger groups.
“I think there are some concepts of having roof access or just making sure that the porch is kept because it is the best view of the bay,” Tipton said.
Streets, Facilities, Parks & Recreation Manager Mark Richardson has worked at the town for 17 years and has witnessed the progression of interest.
Over the years, the center has received upgraded windows, air conditioning repairs from time to time, and minor cosmetic improvements like wallpaper and ceiling changes. Last year, a new $35,000 roof was installed.
But other than that, the building hasn't had a major redesign since the center was moved from the Far Horizons resort to its current site in 1984.
“It probably has outlived its life expectancy,” Richardson said. “But it's still there, you know, and it serves a purpose.”
The current recreation center has an indoor area of about 1,400 square feet, according to Richardson. Private instructors lead recreation classes, such as pilates and yoga.
So far in 2023, about 2,600 people have attended recreation center classes. In 2022, the recreation center classes saw a total of 2,300 people.
Back when Richardson first started collecting the data in 2004, the recreation center had upwards of 6,000 to 7,000 attendees a year. Then, in 2016, one of the most popular events, bridge, left, which dropped numbers quite a bit, according to Richardson.
Now, Richardson said use of the space is highly seasonal.
“It really only gets used from January to March heavy, and then it kind of sits dormant,” Richardson said.
With the new potential for a community center in Whitney Beach Plaza pending contracts with Manatee County, Richardson said that could be a new spot for recreational classes.
But the recreation center concept was brought up again at the Nov. 13 Town Commission retreat. Richardson heard similar ideas as Tipton.
“The latest talks are now, from what I’ve been told, is: look at pricing of an outdoor open-air place that you can still have gatherings,” Richardson said. “But that’s just a concept kind of thing.”
Back in the 1980s, the building was the tennis shack at the Far Horizons resort. According to Richardson, the shack was then moved to where it now sits around 1984, where it was privately operated.
Then, in 1994, the town took it over.
A community center advisory committee was formed in 2003 in an effort to come up with new wishes for a renewed recreation center.
The town hired Wannemacher Jensen Architects Inc. to design a project that was estimated to cost around $6 million.
It was decided that the project would be put to a vote so residents could decide. It failed, Richardson said, by a factor of 32% in favor and 67.6% opposed.
In 2007, Sarasota County purchased 3.88 acres of property to expand Bayfront Park. Two years later, conceptual plans were approved by Sarasota County and Longboat Key commissions.
The plans were authorized in 2011 and combined new ideas from the 2009 plans with some other ideas from the 2003 site plan.
The town of Longboat Key purchased just under an acre of land north of the park in 2011 right before the plans were again put on hold in 2012.
Richardson said those plans included a new recreation center of about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet.
“Because if you're going to build something bigger, you might as well make it where there's only more than just one room,” Richardson said.
Out of those plans the outdoor amenities upgrades were allowed to move forward, making Bayfront Park what it is today.
But, Richardson said, residents once again pushed back against the idea of building a new recreation center, partially out of concerns of how the expansion of a recreation center would impact the private sector.
“So it was all go, and then it just kind of went away again,” Richardson said.
Construction on Bayfront Park began in 2016 and finished a year later in 2017. The total cost of the renovation was $3.5 million.