Longboat Key projects focus on keeping residents closer to home
A library, north-end community center, and Town Center stage advance as new attractions for arts, culture and education in Longboat Key.
Three town projects advancing on three different timelines aim to keep Longboat Key residents closer to home and farther from the region’s notorious over-the-bridges traffic.
It will likely be a while, though, before Longboaters can check out a new spy thriller or listen to a seminar about iPhones at a county-run library or absorb the basics of watercolor painting in a converted space at north-end landmark, Whitney Plaza.
Catching an outdoor concert at a centrally located amphitheater, though, is on track for this season, when Longboat Key’s residential population swells with winter residents and seasonal visitors.
All of those projects, which involve collaboration with county governments on both sides of the Manatee-Sarasota border, private philanthropy or a combination, were conceived with a frequent complaint in mind.
In the most recent town survey of its residents, 68% said traffic and congestion were a major bother, a response repeated consistently in the four years the town has queried its residents.
Those sentiments have been fueled by frequent snarls on the two major bridges linking the barrier islands to the Manatee and Sarasota county mainland — often by long-running road projects, such as the recently completed roundabout at Ringling Causeway and Tamiami Trail on Sarasota’s bayfront.
“Anything that they can add here on the island is a welcome addition,’’ said Carole Snyder, a resident of Gainesville who frequently visits Longboat Key to see friends. “It can get pretty crazy on the roads in the winter.’’
Closest to completion is the Karon Family Pavilion, an outdoor covered stage that forms the centerpiece of the Town Center Green, itself a new attraction carved out of vacant town-owned land a short walk from Town Hall, the Public Tennis Center and the town’s primary shopping destination.
Initially funded by a $500,000 gift from Paul and Sarah Karon, about a dozen additional donors stepped forward with more than $300,000 in 2021 to propel the project when construction bids overran cost expectations.
Concerts, art festivals, farmers markets and more are possible for the 4.8 acres which can hold about 1,000 people, Town Manager Howard Tipton said.
Construction has been underway since November 20222, and a grand opening is planned for Veterans Day in November. A performance of the Sarasota Orchestra Brass Quintet will take place alongside traditional observances honoring veterans.
“We wanted to make sure that we had an opportunity to really highlight this achievement in the opening of not just the pavilion, but really the Town Center,’’ Tipton said. “It really is. The ribbon-cutting event, tying that in with Veterans Day, made a lot of sense.’’
The proposed Sarasota County Library, also envisioned at the Town Center Green site, and the educational facility at Whitney Plaza are more complicated and are both examples of Longboat Key, with billions of dollars worth of taxable real estate, seeking a return on property taxes paid to both Sarasota and Manatee counties.
In the most recent round of property valuations on the island, record levels were achieved: $5.7 billion in the Sarasota County section; $2.6 billion in Manatee County. In recent years, the town has worked together with counties on beach projects, Bayfront Park and similar endeavors but Longboaters have long considered their community a “donor.’’
“There's no question that we're a donor, but there's also, I think, a very good understanding by the citizens here that when we are needing, nurses and construction workers and lawyers and store clerks and anything else that we would need in our daily lives, that the island isn't producing those, we just don't have the kids and the youth to do that,’’ Tipton said. “So we know there's got to be an investment on the mainland side to make sure that everybody's quality of life is good.’’
Working with Sarasota County for two years, town leaders have persuaded county officials to set aside $1 million toward feasibility study and design costs, with construction money still to come. If the project continues as planned, a county library would be built and operated with county money, though local funding would be required for any additional community space, Tipton said.
To that end, as the 2023-24 season bulks up, town officials hope to schedule a series of chats with residents on what they’d like to see included in the town’s portion of the building. Tipton said framing the local space as an addition would end up saving costs as compared to building a standalone facility.
A project to design, build and operate a so-called Arts, Culture and Education Center in conjunction with Ringling College of Art and Design crumbled in 2019, though the notion to formulate a replacement plan of some kind never did.
Earlier this year, when Sarasota County Commissioners voted in favor of continuing support for the Longboat Key library project, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis even evoked the familiar three-pronged purpose of such a community hub for the island.
“Our state-of-the-art library facilities and services will integrate seamlessly with the town of Longboat Key’s vision to provide arts, cultural, and education programming,” he said in a statement.
On the north end of the island, space in a landmark shopping plaza could soon serve a neighborhood need that’s gone unaddressed since 2017, when the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, also run by Ringling College, was shut down and its Longbeach Village land sold for residential development.
Town leaders are talking with officials from Manatee County and the School District of Manatee County to convert one of the Key West-style buildings at Whitney Plaza into a 6,000-square foot community center. In late July, Manatee Commissioners approved moving forward with the notion of collaborating with the school district and the town on the project. Informal talks are also ongoing about what kind of programming and adult education might take place there.
An agreement between the three governments on the potential lease agreement is still undergoing discussion.
“I think the things that we're talking about will enhance that charm, will enhance that character a little bit without taking away from anything,’’ Tipton said. “So for Longboat Key, it's finding the right balance of activity or enhancement.”
Eric Garwood is the executive editor of the Community News Collaborative. You can reach him at email@example.com