Tucked away from the traffic spin of the South Tuttle Avenue roundabout, just north of Bee Ridge Road, sits the South Gate Community House. Even if you’re not familiar with its famous designer, Victor Lundy of the Sarasota School of Architecture, it’s easy to appreciate its unique lines and history.
It’s also easy to note it may have seen better days. After 65 years, and roughly $4,200 a month just to keep it open, the volunteer-powered South Gate Community Association struggles to maintain it, much less return it to its previous midcentury modern glory.
“We were in dire straits at the end of last year and we needed to get a loan from a member to keep us going to pay our bills. With the pandemic, we've been on life support,” says Dave Swenson, president of the South Gate Community Association. “There was $25 in the account in December.”
Built in 1956, the Sarasota County Commission officially designated the structure to be placed on the Sarasota County Register of Historic Places in 2007.
The center, located at 3145 Southgate Circle, has a fenced-in outdoor swimming pool, changing rooms, shuffleboard courts (with weeds poking through the concrete seams) and parking. A little less than four-and-a-half acres, the site has open green space with mature oaks, cedars and cabbage palms and a mangrove shoreline along Phillippi Creek. It houses the office of the South Gate Community Association where meetings are held, and is rented out for weddings, funerals and religious services that have been on hold during the pandemic, stemming the income it relied upon.
But even before the pandemic, talk of how to continue to fund the center had been brewing. In 2015, community members created the nonprofit The Foundation for the Preservation of Victor Lundy’s South Gate Community House in hopes of raising the monies to restore it, but the foundation was dissolved in 2019.
With the looming costs and pending need for essentials like a new roof and air conditioning system, each quoted for roughly $15,000, says Swenson, association members have been weighing a few options. Those included creating a special tax district within the South Gate community, selling it privately, or selling it to Sarasota County.
“We looked at grants and loans and one idea that came up was possibly selling to the county. The board of county commissioners set that process in motion to see if it qualified. And it did,” Swenson says.
If the county acquires it, preservation and maintenance of the existing historic building would be sought, with support from Sarasota County Historical Resources and local architectural nonprofits, according to the work plan. It would become a public park and “maybe have a playground, too. It's not a large site, but may have a fishing pier, enhanced picnic areas and use of the water access as a public launch site,” says Nicole Rissler, Sarasota County Government’s director of Parks, Recreation & Natural Resources.
The biggest bone of contention for those who oppose the sale, however, is the fate of the outdoor pool, known as the oldest public pool in Sarasota County.
It would have to be demolished because "any publicly operated pool would have to have lifeguards on duty, and as a public entity, it just wouldn't be cost-effective to run it,” Rissler says.
Pool access costs association members $150 a year per household. “Historically, we have about 80 members who use the pool, so it's not a very large base, but they do love it,” says Seth Johnson, vice-president of the South Gate Community Association.
He added that at the time it was built, offering a community pool made sense and added value to area real estate, but today that allure has faded. Johnson says he is one of the few residents in the neighborhood who doesn’t have a backyard pool. For those without one, Rissler pointed out that the Arlington Park & Aquatic Complex is a nearby option.
Another argument against selling may stem from what some feel to be an unfairly low price tag—$170,000.
“It doesn't seem like a good offer, but when you account for the building's needs, it's not bad,” says Johnson.
That's because what’s needed to restore the building would cost much more.
“About a half a million dollars is our rough estimate for repairs of the building and demo of the pool, but that would not include the ongoing expenses to run it,” says Rissler.
And if the county buys it, the association would still be able to have its meetings there, free of cost.
At the scheduled June 22 meeting, active South Gate Community Association members, roughly 200, will have the opportunity to learn about the pros and cons of selling the property to the county. A quarter of them must vote to validate the outcome, whether in person or by proxy.
“Everyone will have to make a decision, but my opinion is that selling will help the association and the community. We'll get to have a park. We can still have our meetings there without the burden of the monthly costs. But plenty of people would rather we maintain it ourselves. It’ll be up to the members to vote on how that goes,” Johnson says.
The discussion is scheduled for Tuesday, June 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the center. A South Gate Community Association member vote will be held on Tuesday, June 29, also at 6:30 p.m. Current association members unable to attend can vote here.