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It was always a done deal

Longboat residents didn’t really have a say about the Town Center Green. Town commissioners decided it would be a library.

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The question cut to the quick. Before the first charette began with Sarasota County Library officials last month, a Longboat Key resident raised his hand and asked: “Is this a done deal?”

They said it wasn’t. But it was. 

It wasn’t a charette. More like a charade.

You’re getting a big library and quasi-community center whether you like it or not. And even though Longboat residents didn’t really have a say, this new county-owned building is going to be erected on the Town Center Green.

The Education Center? Sorry, not in the picture. As Mayor Ken Schneier told us Monday: “Since the Education Center charges for its classes, that would be a non starter, I’m told by the library, to have that facility in this space … The library is not changing it’s point of view, and it doesn’t include the education center.”

It’s a long story — the idea of bringing a Sarasota public library to Longboat Key. Just check out the excerpts below from the news archives of the Longboat Observer. It goes back even farther than 2012. 

Sarasota County Library officials have sought for decades off and on to extend public library services to Longboat Key. But bless them, the determined ladies who ran the privately run Longboat Key Library on Bay Isles Road would not give in. They kept going — until they couldn’t anymore.

In March 2020, Longboat Library President Mary Baker told the Longboat Observer: “At the end of the day, the best thing we could do for Longboat Key is to bring full library services here.”

The door finally opened, and Mayor Ken Schneier and then-Town Manager Tom Harmer stepped in. 

Even though the town’s partnership with Ringling College of Art and Design to develop an Arts, Cultural, Education Center had dissolved, some town commissioners continued to hold the dream and intent of having a four-acre town center in between Publix and the Longboat Key Public Tennis Center.

This was the moment. With commission support, Harmer then began the campaign to have a county library built on the Town Center Green.

You can see the progression of their efforts in the excerpts below — how Schneier and Harmer had what Harmer called “high-level discussions” with Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, and how commissioners discussed the idea with Sarasota County commissioners.

On April 27, 2022, in a joint session of both commissions, Harmer made what he called “the ask.”He asked Sarasota County commissioners to fund the construction of a public library on Longboat Key. He never said explicitly this library would be sited on the Town Center Green, but the implication was obvious. The first two items on that day’s agenda were discussions of a library and the town’s plans for a town center.

Town commissioners left that meeting with a commitment from Sarasota County Commissioner Chair Al Maio money would be appropriated to begin the project.

The deal was done.

From that meeting in April 2022 up to January 2023, Harmer and Lewis worked out details. At a Jan. 23, 2023, Town Commission meeting, Harmer presented town commissioners with a “principles agreement,” spelling out what the county would agree to do. Among Harmer’s comments to commissioners:

“Prior to COVID, there was a formal request by the town and Town Commission for a library on Longboat Key. They (the county) indicated their support to advance that. And then COVID came, and they froze their budgets and restricted capital projects … 

“I asked them to consider a 50-year (lease) instead of a 99-year. They ultimately agreed to that … They did indicate what a library would include. That is important because that has evolved from our earlier discussions with the county. They were talking about a very small space, like 1,000, 1,100, 1,600 square feet, a very small space with just the circulation component.

“Now they’re talking about more of what I would say is typical new library for them. They stated here it included the circulation space, public technology use, larger community space, conference rooms, reading room, collaboration spaces. 

“They indicated they would design, construct, maintain and operate the facility. It would be a county facility.

“They have also understood that the town may be interested in some add-ons to the facility … Those would be funded separately. But they would be responsible for the base facility.”

Not a word of objection followed.

So here we are, a year later. You can find ample Longboat residents who are surprised. Over the past month-and-a-half, in this space and in conversations around town, Longboat residents apparently thought what was to be developed with the county was still open for discussion. Indeed, in our unscientific survey two weeks ago, more respondents expressed support for an education center and community center than for a library.

And even though Mayor Schneier said at a commission meeting in February he was open to ideas, the fact is the deal was done. Town commissioners decided Longboat Key should have a county library on the Town Center Green. They decided and pursued this without seeking an unequivocal expression of support from the residents of Longboat Key.

They decided. The people did not.

“I’m not sure,” said BJ Bishop at the Feb. 20 Town Commission meeting, “that maybe other than (Vice Mayor) Mike (Haycock) and Ken have gotten to participate in a discussion of our priorities for this project … Because quite honestly, I don’t think I have had any of those discussions.”

When we reread Observer editorials from the past four years, the Observer twice urged the town to conduct valid surveys, polls or referenda to determine what Longboat Key residents support and really want.

Even back in February 2019, when the town was in its partnership with Ringling College, Jim Brown, former mayor and then-president of the Longboat Key Foundation, told us Longboat Key residents and taxpayers first needed to answer one fundamental question: 

Do Longboaters want a cultural, arts and education center with a “black box” theater or just a cultural, arts and education center that can host lectures, art exhibits and community gatherings?

We never found out. 

It didn’t matter. 

It’s not up to you. You’re getting a library — like it or not.  

How the library became sited at Town Center Green

Editor’s Note: The following is a timeline of excerpts of news stories from the Longboat Observer showing how discussions of a Sarasota County public library evolved to being designated for the Town Center Green. 

Nov. 7, 2012: Longboat Library discusses options with Sarasota County

The Sarasota County Commission approved a grant of $20,000 in February for the Longboat Library, but made it clear that it was a one-time deal.

Now, the Longboat Library is looking for ways to work with the Sarasota County Library System. But, in many ways, the county is limited in the extent that it can support the nonprofit, all-volunteer library because it charges for membership.

It’s a point that Sarabeth Kalajian, director of the county library system, stressed last month when the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners and the Longboat Key Town Commission held a joint meeting that included discussion about library services.

The library system’s state aid is predicated on the point that libraries are free, Kalajian said at the Oct. 1 meeting.

March 4, 2020: Sarasota County library could be added on Longboat

At a joint meeting Feb. 26 commissioners preliminarily discussed what it would take to add a county library on Longboat and whether those services would extend to both Sarasota County and Manatee County residents.

Most county commissioners seemed in favor of the library and said they would look to set aside funds during the upcoming budget cycle. However, they are still unsure of what the service would look like.

Because the Longboat Library requires a fee, Sarasota County could not partner with the organization without losing state funding. 

Instead, it would have to partner directly with the town of Longboat Key …

“At the end of the day, the best thing we could do for Longboat Key is to bring full library services here,” Longboat Library President Mary Baker said. “I’m committed to doing anything I can to help that.” 

Some commissioners suggested taking over the lease the current Longboat Library has with the town. However, that lease ends June 15, 2021, and requires a one-year notice, so commissioners would have to let the current occupants know by June 15, 2020.

Longboat Vice Mayor Ed Zunz said he would like to see a new library fixture be considered for the proposed town center.

Dec. 8, 2021: Mayor advocates for Sarasota County-operated library in Longboat Key

The COVID-19 pandemic put Longboat Key’s request for a county-operated library on hold but town leaders are again expressing their desire to bring a Sarasota County-operated library to the island.

On Monday, Longboat Key Mayor Ken Schneier wrote a letter to the Sarasota County Commission.

“We feel the timing is right to reignite plans to construct a library on Longboat Key and understand that town and county staff are looking at ways to establish incremental library services,” Schneier wrote … 

Schneier wrote in his letter that Longboat Library leadership has indicated support for a transition to a public library. The plan would be for the group to support the Sarasota County Library “in a volunteer relationship as Friends of the Sarasota County Library.”

Also, (Town Manager Tom) Harmer said a new Sarasota County-operated library would complement the Town Center site.

May 1, 2022: County leaders talk about how to bring library to Longboat with four proposals

Following an exchange of verbal good vibrations between leaders of the Sarasota County Commission and the Longboat Key Town Commission, at least new four proposals for financing a county-run library and community center on the island surfaced last week at a joint meeting in Sarasota.

Among them: potential cooperation with Manatee County and Sarasota County Schools on funding operating costs; state money to help propel the project; federal grant money; and even tax money expected to begin flowing from the Residences at St. Regis Resort Longboat Key in 2025.

Town leaders came to the meeting with a proposed timeline that kicks off with upgraded remote library services for island residents this year, followed by a path that includes the project landing on the county’s five-year, capital-improvement project budget …

(Sarasota County Commission Chairman Al) Maio, who has been speaking with Schneier and Town Manager Tom Harmer about the proposal, told Harmer in the joint meeting he would formally recommend to the County Commission that the library/community center be folded into upcoming budget discussions …

May 30, 2022: Sarasota County adds $1 million for town library development

It appears as a note on the bottom of the 72nd page of a 222-page budget workshop presentation, delivered to Sarasota County Commissioners last week.

Seven words.

Underneath a table that lists about $7.7 million for computer and circulation materials purchases for the Libraries and Historical Resources Department, $2 million in 2024 spending for a county history center and the expansion of the Fruitville Library and about $9 million for technology and books is a line that reads: “$1M in funding for future library design” ... 

That $1 million added to the county’s 2023 capital improvement plan budget of $171.9 million is the first component of a series of requests Longboat Key leaders made of their county counterparts, with the goal of seeking financial assistance for the planning, design, construction and operation of a library/community center at the Town Center Green land.

Feb. 2, 2023: Town lays out expectations of county library project

The town of Longboat Key is putting in writing what it considers important in its relationship with Sarasota County as the two governments move forward with plans for the Town Center library project …

Over the past few years, the town has been advocating for a community center and library to be a focal point for the development of the Town Center Green. During the town’s joint meeting with the Sarasota County Commission on April 27, 2022, the town requested the County Commission consider monetarily supporting the construction of the library. 

“We look forward to collaborating with the Town of Longboat Key to provide this much-wanted amenity in a way that complements the town’s vision for their Town Center Green project,” said Sarasota County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. 



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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