Marie Selby's Legacy Will Live On

Letters

“Nature Displayed: Discourses on Natural History as Were Thought Most Proper to Excite the Curiosity and Form the Minds of Youth” was the (abridged) title of a 250-year-old book shared with the audience in a PowerPoint presentation during last week’s groundbreaking event at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. One of the primary objectives of the Gardens’ $72-million master plan is to fortify the 15-acre downtown campus in order to protect the Gardens’ rare plant collections, historic buildings and irreplaceable works such as “Nature Displayed” from catastrophic storm events and sea level rise. Additionally, acres of green space will be made available for the enjoyment of visitors and neighbors alike when the now-sprawling surface parking lots occupying an appreciable portion of the campus are consolidated under a multi-level parking structure adorned with solar panels and enrobed with leafy “living walls.” Once completed, the campus will be one of the first energy net-positive botanical garden complexes in the world.   

Before the ceremonial shovel-and-hard-hat segment of the celebration, uplifting words from local political leadership—specifically Mayor Hagen Brody and State Sen. Joe Gruters—reminded the audience of the slings and arrows Selby’s leadership team endured as they navigated the seemingly impenetrable thicket of an unnecessarily politicized approval process. Opposition to the Gardens’ Master Plan became so personal and so overblown it backfired, awakening the community to the poison-ivy politicking of the few that has polluted City Hall for decades. In politics—just like in physics—for every action there’s always an equal and opposite reaction. The resultant change of course in city politics has been nothing less than a sea change for the better.  

There are two key reasons why City Hall’s “Old Guard” was swept out in a King Tide last November: (1) for the first time, a more diverse electorate weighed in on the selection of their City Commissioners, and; (2) the “Old Guard,” led by former Commissioner Susan Chapman, mercilessly attacked and vilified one of Sarasota’s most prized assets—Selby Gardens—and its leadership team, demonstrating just how damaging this small but privileged group can be to our community’s cultural landscape. 

Should Commissioner Jennifer Ahearn-Koch’s slate of candidates have prevailed last November, a 4-1 vote in favor of Selby may have been a 3-2 against the Gardens. And the redevelopment of the Bayfront Cultural District, now known as The Bay, may have been stalled yet again if Commissioner Ahearn-Koch’s “No” vote(s) weren’t countered by a centrist majority. In order to preserve Sarasota’s most prized assets, they must be allowed to adapt and grow. President and CEO Jennifer Rominiecki and her lieutenant, Chief Operating Officer Wendy Deming, ought to be commended for their persistence, perseverance and resilience. But for their leadership, it might have been Payne Mansion and the 18th century manuscripts housed within, carried out to sea, instead. 

Gabriel Hament is a Sarasota native and a Democratic political strategist. 

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