Within weeks, the Longboat Key Town Commission is scheduled to decide whether to allow the $400 million expansion of the Longboat Key Club and Resort’s properties near the island’s southern tip: nine new buildings, a new, business-oriented hotel, 176 condo units and a new golf course. Most of the financing is already in place.
The project will bring upwards of 300 full-time jobs on site, 500 additional jobs to the community and a total regional economic impact of $40 million, according to economists from Fishkind and Associates of Orlando, plus a whole lot of tax revenue to Longboat Key—$6 million from building permits alone—and Sarasota County. And the added hotel rooms are proposed just as the area has lost more than 1,200 rooms in recent years, including some 500 on Longboat with the conversion of the Holiday Inn to luxury condos and the shuttering of The Colony Beach and Tennis Resort.
To the business community, suffering in an environment of 13 percent unemployment, continuing building and retail slumps and waves of foreclosures, the project has the gleam of salvation. Just think of all the jobs, and of all those thousands of new, affluent customers for struggling Longboat merchants, nervous St. Armands Circle and downtown restaurants and shops. If past is prelude, a percentage of those wealthy visitors will be so impressed by our beaches and cultural and retail amenities they will one day pop for that long-sought winter residence, retirement home or the perfect spot for the relocation of their business—placing badly needed upward pressure on real estate sales prices. An economist says it will almost immediately improve home values on the key as much as 12 percent.
So, local approval is a no-brainer, right?
Not even close. On Oct. 9, the town’s planning staff stated it “could not recommend [planning and zoning board] approval” of the club’s project application because it failed to show how it complied with or was entitled to deviate from established codes and previous rulings in several areas, including building height, lot coverage, intensity, open space preservation, traffic management and parking. If approval is considered despite the recommendation, the staff suggested 14 conditions that could be attached to that approval.
The town commission, with the recommendations of the planning staff and advisory board in hand, is the ultimate arbiter. It can follow the recommendations, ignore them entirely or, more likely, attempt to fashion some sort of half-loaf compromise. After more meetings this month, commissioners are expected to make a decision sometime after the first of the year.
The town’s tea leaves are a tough read. One town commission candidate, Gene Jaleski, ran on a platform opposing the project last March, and won handily. (As a result, he may have to abstain from the ultimate vote, although town attorney David Persson is noncommittal on the question.) But then, a recent islandwide referendum overwhelmingly endorsed liberalizing land use codes to permit a modest expansion of tourist-oriented hotels and condos, to 250 units, suggesting more widespread support for tourism of late. But it did not pertain to the club’s private enclaves.
Then there is a determined cadre of Longboat Key Club condo owners, many from the L’Ambiance condo adjacent to the club’s existing hotel, who formed an organization to oppose the project, the Islandside Property Owners Coalition (www.islandsidecoalition.org). They armed themselves with big bucks from their 10 Gulf-front condo associations, and hired the big gun of local land use lawyers, Michael Furen, to fight the expansion of the club to which many of them belong. The mostly elderly residents of that row of high-rise beachfront condos dread years of construction traffic, altered backdoor views, a marked “density” increase and more traffic.
But Bob White, the coalition’s chairman—and a likely candidate for town commission—says the group will not make appeals based on any of the residents’ “personal, emotional issues” with the club. “We’ll stick to the land use and legal issues” he says, in hopes they will resonate islandwide, not just “behind the gates,” where only residents, members and guests are welcome.
Longboat Key Club general manager Michael Welly says that if the town rejects this proposal—which his corporate owners have already scaled back 20 percent in response to residents’ earlier concerns—they are through asking permission to spend their money here, and will simply manage the 27-year-old resort as is until it is no longer profitable. Take it or leave it. “To succeed with a five-star resort, you have to be constantly updating, reinventing yourself, or these guests will go to properties that do that,” he says.
Prominent Anna Maria Island restaurateur Ed Chiles says he is an enthusiastic supporter of the club’s expansion, which will provide a substantial boost to all businesses and city coffers. “But I hope that if it doesn’t go well this time, Michael [Welly] will keep trying,” he says. “We really need this, especially now.”
If this commission doesn’t approve it, he feels the makeup of the town commission will change in the next (March) election, and the new commissioners will be more receptive to the concept of a new five-star resort on the island.
The club has undertaken an intensive P.R. campaign with community meetings, glossy informational sheets, newspaper inserts and an e-mail address, [email protected], where project backers can voice their support and the club can assess its standing in the greater community.
Town Planning and Zoning Board member Walter Hackett says people “have to understand what we’re hearing from the people most affected by this project. As we grow older, the prospect of change has an increasing influence on us, and often it equates to alarm and fear of the unknown.”
He would not comment on the project’s merits, and would say only he believes the club would ultimately earn the approval of “somewhere between zero and the 372 [hotel rooms and condos] units they’ve asked for.” Welly says any further reductions in the scope of the project would make it economically infeasible.
What is obvious and real right now is the decline of the key as a tourist destination and its inability to sustain businesses. The trauma began with the closure of the beachfront Holiday Inn—a loss of 250 rooms and 76,000 tourist visits a year—and escalated in September when another 250 rooms were lost when the iconic Colony Beach and Tennis Resort was shuttered by founder Murf Klauber. No fan of his competitor’s planned expansion, he predicted he’d open again in two years. But few people buy that, especially since The Colony has filed for bankruptcy protection.
Eager hotel developers are already eyeing the 17-acre Colony site for another first-class resort when the property’s multiple-ownership scheme and other legal entanglements are unraveled.
Meanwhile, multiple restaurants have closed, as have a fitness club, a law office, a veterinary clinic, two insurance agencies, two of the island’s three gas stations, clothing stores and gift shops in the wake of the Holiday Inn’s closing. Harry’s Continental Kitchens and other surviving restaurants report 20 percent dips in revenue. The fallout from The Colony’s closing won’t be assessed until the end of this winter’s season, but it will likely depress the influx of tourist dollars by another 15 percent.
“Hey, there isn’t any traffic out here, not really,” says Rick Crawford, a Longboat Key Club condo resident himself who’s formed a group to support the club’s expansion (www.positivechangeforlbk.com). “And [the opponents] issue dire warnings about traffic jams. Heck, even in season, half those [Gulf-front] condos are unoccupied. There’s definitely no real traffic problem out here.
“Longboat’s hurting. It really needs this,” Crawford says. “But all of Sarasota is hurting, too. Businesses are closing, people are losing their homes to foreclosure; there aren’t any jobs. This one project can be a huge positive force for change for the whole area.”
Welly calls his project a real “economic stimulus package that won’t cost the town, the county or the club’s members a dime. No tax breaks have been sought.” And more area business owners and organizations are coming to realize its potential positive impact, and endorsing it.
Convention and Visitors Bureau president Virginia Haley says simply, “The one thing Sarasota desperately needs most is rooms at the beach. If facilities for visitors aren’t there, or aren’t kept fresh and attractive, all of those people will go some place else. And the best facilities have historically been on Longboat Key, which makes that island very, very important to the community as a whole.
“We sell ourselves as a beachfront resort community, and an arts and cultural destination,” Haley says. “It’s the people who visit and stay at those properties who patronize our art galleries, our cultural venues, our better restaurants, the shops on St. Armands, and make a market for those multimillion-dollar homes. If we lose those people, all we’ll need is T-shirt stores and ice cream shops.”
As Joan McGill, vice pres-ident, business development, for the Sarasota Economic Development Corp., says, “We know from talking to CEOs who’ve moved their businesses here, that they were introduced to the area during a stay at one of our upscale resorts, especially those on Longboat Key. And that’s how they fell in love with the place, came back again and again, and eventually moved here and then brought their businesses with them, or started
Sarasota Bradenton International Airport CEO Rick Piccolo says the project has the potential to “solidify our tourist base and bring many new travelers to the airport. We can’t just keep saying no to everything; we have to consider the greater community, too, and that includes the people who take care of things on Longboat Key but can’t afford to live there.”
Local business advocates agree the Longboat Key Club expansion proposal represents “a tipping point,” “a crossroads,” for the Sarasota community at large.
Welly says that if their expansion project is blocked, other prospective investors will see the problems the club is having with local government and go elsewhere.
The condo coalition’s White says his group is not against the expansion of tourist facilities on the key, just the planned hotel-condo complex by the golf course at their front gate. “It’s just way too massive,” he says. “It’ll change the whole character of the club. And the visitors it generates will help St. Armands a lot more than Longboat Key; and after it’s completed, the special events it hosts—weddings, charity events—will create the worst traffic problems between St. Armands and the south end of the key.”
That strikes a chord with St. Armands Circle Association executive director Diana Corrigan. She’ll take that traffic, gratefully, she says. The Circle has lost several shops in the last year, including longtime merchants like jeweler Optional Art and clothier Maus and Hoffman. “People need to remember, whatever this corporation does, it does it with taste and style,” Corrigan says. “They’ll do everything to minimize disruptions. And they give so much back to this community, including their support of charities.
“And this will be a business-oriented hotel, for meetings and seminars,” she continues. “Business people who come to such events aren’t out driving cars. They stay on the hotel property, go to the beach, play golf or tennis, or they take the club’s shuttle to St. Armands and other places. The club has spent millions of dollars on this project already. The new tennis complex [24 courts plus a stadium court] is gorgeous.
“Some of these people want to take us back to being a sleepy little village,” she says. “They’ve moved here, and now they’d like to lock the door and not let anyone else in behind them. We can't afford that.”
White says he realizes the heat the controversy has generated, and the fact it has begun to pit various factions on the key against one another—north end vs. south, retirees vs. working people, older vs. younger, wealthy vs. less wealthy.
He says the coalition regrets that, “and it’s not been our intention. But we came here for the peace and tranquility. This is largely a retirement community, and this project will change its whole character.”
The demographics of the island would seem to stack up on his side of the issue. But Longboat/St. Armands/Lido Chamber president Tom Aposporos says he believes that when residents get all the facts, they will ask their commissioners to “do the right thing, even if it means accepting significant change.
“This is a dramatic moment for us,” Aposporos says. “Longboat Key is not a gated subdivision, it’s a town. And a town needs a thriving business and services sector to be a true community.”■
Town of Longboat Key by the Numbers
Population: Nearly 8,000. In season, nearly 20,000, but tourism has fallen off in recent years; the summer population is estimated at 3,500.
Median age of residents: 68, one of Florida’s oldest. Just 268 residents are under 25; 389 are 85 and older; more than half, 4,435, are over 75.
Race: 99.2 percent Caucasian
Wealth: Median adjusted gross annual income, $269,313, mostly from retirement benefits and investments.
Homes: Condos, 75 percent; single-family, 21 percent; other, 4 percent. Only 27 percent are principal residences. Median listing price, $729,000; median sales price, $480,000, down 11 percent from 2008.
The Longboat Key Club and its owners, the real estate investment firm Loeb Realty Partners of New York (owners of seven midtown Manhattan high-rise residential and office complexes, shopping centers, resorts and urban hotels from Boston to New Orleans).
A five-star hotel with 196 rooms and 34 condominium residences; two golf course condo buildings, 132 units total; two townhome villas, 10 units total; a golf clubhouse and restaurant; 17,000-square-foot meeting center; 28,000-square-foot wellness center; three-story parking garage.
New golf course: Designed by Rees Jones Inc., which also designed Baltusrol and Medinah, two courses at Pinehurst and Torrey Pines.
Along both sides of Longboat Club Drive, immediately west of Gulf of Mexico Drive.
Expected year of build-out: 2016.
The LBKC’s site plan
1. Resort Entrance
3. Longboat Key Club &
Resort sales office
4. Existing Chart House restaurant
5. Inn on the Pass tourist and residential units
6. Resort pools
7. Golf Club residential pool
8. Spa and fitness center
9. Spa rooftop pool
10. Villas on the Pass
11. Villa pool
13. Resort meeting center & administrative offices
14. Clubhouse & meeting center drop off
15. Golf clubhouse
16. Multipurpose athletic court
17. Har-Tru tennis courts
19. Landmark oak trees
20. Golf club residential units
21. Three-story parking structure
22. Golf practice area