Back in my salad days, I worked as a reporter in Sarasota, covering the municipal beat for the local newspaper, the Herald-Tribune. For 38 years, from 1950 to 1988, the city had the same person at the helm, City Manager Ken Thompson.
Though his long tenure was controversial, Thompson is credited with bringing the sleepy circus city into the modern age. A book written a decade ago, The Rise of Sarasota: Ken Thompson and the Rebirth of Paradise, is a testament to his contributions to the city.
In my first year covering City Hall, much of the drama on the city commission centered on Thompson’s future with the city. Thompson was 77, and several commissioners believed that his time to retire had come and gone at least several times. But Thompson held fast, and held his opposition at bay for several years, always with the attitude that he would outlast his opposition, which he always did.
When he finally decided to retire in 1988, I was tasked by my editors with getting a debriefing from him on the changes that occurred in the city over his nearly four decades as city manager. Over a one-week period, I visited him in the afternoons at his office and reconstructed his life as city manager.
I don’t remember much about those interviews, but two things stand out. He credited his health and mental acuity to a daily regimen of jumping on his backyard trampoline. He credited the city’s status as a cultural mecca on Florida’s west coast with the decision to build the Van Wezel Center for the Performing Arts.
He told me during the interviews that building the Van Wezel in the 1960s was designed to bring well-heeled newcomers who would be attracted to the city’s cultural offerings. In his view, the purple-hued hall on the bayfront would be a symbol of the city’s cultural wealth.
I don’t use a trampoline on a daily or even occasional basis, but Thompson’s “build it and they will come’’ approach to enhancing the cultural life of a community has stuck with me in the various communities I’ve covered over the years. I was especially reminded of this philosophy as Maria Sonnenberg put together her story starting on Page 28 updating our readers on the recent improvements to Brevard’s Maxwell C. King Center for the Performing Arts.
Like the Van Wezel in Sarasota, the King Center has made a similar impact on Brevard County since opening its doors 34 years ago.
The Florida Legislature approved the initial design work for Brevard’s new 2,016-seat performing arts hall in 1983 and the $12.3 million center opened as the Brevard Performing Arts Center in 1988. A year later, the center was named for Maxwell C. King, the longtime president of Brevard Community College, now Eastern Florida State College, which owns and supports the center.
Over the years, the center has brought countless Broadway shows, symphonies and major headliner acts such as Aretha Franklin and Billy Joel, exerting a profound impact on the cultural life of Brevard County and Central Florida. A recent $4 million renovation has only enhanced the wow factor for the more than 100,000 people entering its doors for its scores of shows each year.
Undoubtedly, there are many old-time Brevard residents sitting in those seats. But others are occasional tourists thinking about making Brevard their future home. Or maybe even possible job recruits to L3Harris. Residents think with pride what their community has achieved culturally and the visitors think of the benefits that life in Brevard could bring: miles of beaches, a thriving economy, great weather and even outstanding cultural opportunities.
Performing arts venues such as the King Center have been especially affected by the restrictions caused by COVID-19. Even as we were putting the article together a new variant of the coronavirus arrived. It’s times like these that we must rally to protect the institutions we value.